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#IrelandCooksforSyria: Spiced Chicken Shawarma with Creamy Garlic Sauce; Cream & Rosewater Baklava

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Over the past few years, Ireland has been welcoming Syrian refugees to its towns and villages. As a result, there is a good-sized Syrian community now living in Thurles, the nearest town to our farm.

I’m part of a group of Irish Food Bloggers that are posting Syrian recipes today in an effort to introduce you to typical (read: addictively delicious) Syrian cuisine and start a conversation about how we can help welcome refugees into our communities. It doesn’t have to be about fundraising or even necessarily being politically active (though both of those things are great). In my case, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know some Syrian women in Thurles on a more informal level.

Although I was relatively ignorant about Syrian food and culture before writing this post, I did know that most Syrians are practising Sunni Muslims. This means the women wear Hajib when they’re out in public, socialization is largely segregated by sex, and alcohol/pork/non-Halal foods are not consumed – ever. In a small town like Thurles, that can lead to problems when it comes to the weekly shop.

As a result, most Thurles-based Syrian food shopping is done at the Halal shop in Port Laoise or the shops in Tallaght (Dublin) with the last few bits being done in Thurles itself. I was so impressed, when my friend Reham recently had me over to her house, with the size of her refrigerator – it’s a huge, North American-style, stainless steel beauty. I was green with envy.

“We need lots of room because we don’t get to Dublin very often,” she explained. “When we do go, we buy a lot of Halal ingredients and use the fridge/freezer for storage.”

Reham came to Thurles with her husband, son and daughter about two years ago (and she has since welcomed an adorable baby girl!). Her sister came as well, with her own family, but as many Syrian families are quite large the sisters still have siblings, in-laws and parents living in other parts of the world.

Reham and I originally met at a Thurles Women’s Group gathering. I was invited to attend by the local coordinator and didn’t really know what to expect. I ended up staying for hours, having great chats with nearly every woman – Syrian and Irish alike – in the room.

Kids, husbands, the little quirks that come along with moving to Ireland – by the end of the night the ladies and I were laughing like old friends, and Reham promised to make me shawarma – something I used to eat every night in Toronto after cleaning down the restaurant kitchen (the shawarma shop on the way to my apartment was the only restaurant still open at 2am!).

“There is one Halal restaurant (Kebabish) in Thurles,” she said later at her house, in between bites of shawarma and fresh lemon, “but we usually prefer to eat at home.”

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I don’t blame her. Reham could make millions selling her homemade pickles and I would be a daily patron if her family ever decided to open a shawarma shop in Thurles.

… Have I mentioned I LOVE SHAWARMA?

In Toronto you can’t walk 500 metres without seeing a shawarma shop. Not all shawarma are created equal, though – the best ones are filled with juicy, spit-roasted slices of chicken or lamb, a generous smear of garlic cream sauce, fresh tomato and pickles and maybe a dollop of hummus for good measure. You can get them in a pita wrap, or with all the ingredients piled on a plate with fries.

Reham doesn’t have a spit (at least, I didn’t see one in the kitchen), but the chicken was moist and deliciously spiced. She wrapped the chicken and sauce in pita and toasted the whole thing on a grill – burrito-style! We then dipped our shawarma in extra garlic sauce and piled them with fried potatoes and bright red pickled turnip.

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I was so full after the shawarma, but there was a delicious looking baklava for dessert filled with thickened cream and flavoured with rose water – how could I pass that up? I downed two pieces along with my cardamom-infused Arabic coffee.

I’m so glad to have met my Syrian neighbours in Thurles. They are as mad about food as I am, they’re fun to be around and they teach me new things all the time. As a newcomer myself it’s great to spend some time with other non-Irish people every now and then!

I’d encourage anyone interested in getting to know their local Syrian community to research any local men’s/women’s groups that might be involved. You can also contact your local representatives to ask how you can get stuck in.

The Irish Food Bloggers involved in this linky are supporting Amnesty International’s “I Welcome Refugees” campaign. Click on the link to learn more about this great initiative.

In the meantime, you can make this shawarma and baklava. You won’t regret it.

*Thanks to Billy at Rookie Cook for organizing this! Here are links to other #IrelandCooksforSyria blog posts (will add to this as they come):

The Honest Project

Rookie Cook

Colm O’Gorman & here’s Colm’s piece in the Irish Times

Tasty Mediterraneo

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Spiced Chicken Shawarma with Creamy Garlic Sauce 

Ingredients:

For the Chicken:

500g chicken breasts or boneless thighs, sliced into large pieces

2-3 pita wraps

juice of 1/2 lemon

1 tsp each:

ground coriander

ground cumin

all-purpose Syrian spice mix (you can find it in Halal shops)

pinch of cinnamon

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

100g plain Greek yogurt

2 tsp salt

For the Garlic Sauce:

5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

juice of one lemon

1 egg white

2 Tbsp ice water

1 cup rapeseed oil (or canola; sunflower – any mild oil)

good pinch of sea salt

Directions:

  • Marinate your chicken in the spices, garlic, lemon juice and yogurt for at least an hour.
  • Saute or grill your chicken pieces until fully cooked. Open up the pita and spread 1 Tbsp garlic sauce in each. Layer the chicken into the pita and roll up tightly like a burrito.
  • Grill the shawarma wraps until hot all the way through and the outside is slightly toasty. Slice into 2-3 pieces per pita.
  • Serve with French fries, extra garlic sauce, dill pickles, pickled turnip and beetroot, fresh cucumber, fresh carrot, and slices of fresh lemon (you eat the lemon, it’s not for juice!).

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Cream, Rosewater and Pistachio Baklava

Ingredients:

at least 16 sheets phyllo pastry (8 for the bottom and 8 for the top)

melted butter (about 60g/1/4 cup)

250g/1 cup crushed or blitzed pistachios

Rose Water Syrup:

2 tsp rose water

juice of 1/2 lemon

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup honey

Cream Filling:

250ml/1 cup heavy cream

250ml/1 cup whole milk

60g/1/4 cup sugar

3 Tbsp cornstarch

2 tsp vanilla

Directions: .

  • Make the rose water syrup: in a small saucepan, combine the lemon juice, water, rose water and honey. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes (until slightly thickened). Set aside to cool.
  • Make the cream filling: in a saucepan, combine all of the ingredients, stirring until smooth. Slowly bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly, and boil for 2 minutes to fully thicken. Remove from heat, allow to cool slightly, then wrap clingfilm directly onto the surface of the filling (to avoid a skin forming) and chill for 1 hour.
  • Preheat your oven to 180∘C (350∘F)
  • Line the bottom of a small, lightly buttered casserole dish with half the phyllo pastry, brushing each sheet with melted butter before adding the next. On top of this, add the cream filling and spread evenly.
  • Add the remaining phyllo sheets on top of the cream filling, again brushing each sheet with melted butter (including the top sheet). Using a sharp knife, lightly score the top of the baklava with a diamond or square design.
  • Bake the baklava for about 40 minutes (check after 30). The pastry should be golden brown and puffed-up and the diamond or square design on top should be prominent.
  • Sprinkle the top of the hot baklava with the crushed pistachios and then douse the whole thing in syrup (this must be done as soon as it comes out of the oven). Allow to cool before cutting and serving.
  • You will want to eat this within 2 days (the fresher it is, the better it tastes).
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Nova Scotian Rum Pie

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I’ve worked under and with a lot of great chefs over the years. I’ve had mentors who were patient and generous with their knowledge and experience.

In Toronto I only ever worked for one restaurant company. I never felt the need to go elsewhere – I was treated well, paid relatively well (what cook is ever paid really well?), and enjoyed insurance and benefits most cooks never get. The best part, though, was the variety of my work and the amazing people I got to hang out with and learn from every day.

I wrote the above paragraph because it needed to be said. A cook is only ever as good as their mentor; I was really lucky to have several great chefs to learn from.

So why do I keep going back to my Grandma as my main culinary inspiration? It seems as I get older and have my own kids, I gain more and more respect for that sweet woman and what she accomplished in her life.

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On the outside it doesn’t look like she did much. She married my Grandfather at a young age, had seven kids and kept house. But I know the difference. Now that I have kids (and try to keep house) I understand the difficulties she probably encountered…

Except:

  • I don’t have seven kids. I have two.
  • I’ve never HAD to kill a chicken or grow my food. Those things are optional for me.
  • I’m financially better off than she was.
  • I don’t have a crippling autoimmune disease like she did.

I mean, I’m barely keeping it together as it is. The more I think about my Grandma, the more humbled I feel.

Especially considering the amount of time and money I put into becoming a chef. She was an amazing cook and baker. There may not have been much food in the house, but my Grandma kept all her kids fed and happy. She could take a bit of flour and sugar and turn it into something satisfyingly good.

I was watching The Chef’s Table last night on Netflix and was so inspired by the Korean Buddhist monk Jeong Kwan. Her food looks mouth-wateringly delicious, but, as it was stated in the documentary, as a cook she is completely without ego (which is so rare in our food network/social media-driven society). She lives her life simply, grows what she eats and shares what she has. Her food just happens to look like it was cooked and plated in a Michelin Star restaurant.

It reminded me of the way my Grandma would cook (though my Protestant Grandma would probably raise her eyebrows at being compared to a Buddhist; gotta stay honest). She never tried to do anything fancy, but her food always hit the spot, and she put love into everything she made.

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Before I moved to Ireland, my Aunt gifted me a cookbook of old pioneer recipes my Grandma had given to her years before. I look through it often, but not just because of the recipes – the history of my island is written in between the pages. It starts from the oldest Scottish pioneer recipes (think Dandelion Wine and Athol Brose), has a portion of recipes from New Zealand, where a lot of our descendants also ended up and ends with the kind of soul-satisfying desserts, soups and casseroles I grew up eating.

This pie kept jumping out at me. Maybe, at almost 30 weeks pregnant, I’m just really missing booze; who knows? This rum-tinged custard creation satisfies so many cravings on so many levels, and (thankfully) the booze is for flavour and not cognitive impact, so it’s safe for anyone to pig out on.

The recipe may sound daunting if you’re not used to working with gelatin, but stick with it – it’s actually really easy. The amount of gelatin in this recipe will give the rum custard a wobble, but it won’t be 100% set like Jello. More like a slightly alcoholic, ice-cream flavoured panna cotta (and who could resist that?).

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Nova Scotian Rum Pie

Ingredients:

For the Crust:

1 package digestive biscuits (about 500g), crushed (in Canada, we use graham cracker crumbs)

125g/1/2 cup melted butter

For the Filling:

1 Tbsp un-flavoured powdered gelatin

125ml/1/2 cup cold water

375ml/1 1/2 cups whole milk

2 tsp vanilla extract, divided

170g/3/4 cup granulated sugar

Pinch of sea salt

2 eggs, separated (room temperature is best)

4 Tbsp spiced rum

For the Topping:

250ml/1 cup heavy whipping cream

3 Tbsp icing (confectioner’s) sugar

Shaved milk chocolate (OR here in Ireland I used crushed Flake bars), to garnish

Directions:

  • Preheat your oven to 180∘C (350∘F). Combine the crushed biscuits and melted butter. Firmly press the mixture onto the bottom and up the sides of a springform pan (or any high-sided pan with a removable bottom).
  • Bake the crust for 8-10 minutes, until browned. Set aside to cool.
  • In a bowl, add the cold water and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Do not stir. Set aside and allow the gelatin to bloom.
  • Using a hand/stand mixer, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, salt and 1 tsp of vanilla until well combined (pale yellow, sugar dissolved). Add the milk and continue mixing until everything is well-combined.
  • Pour the milk/egg mixture into a saucepan and slowly bring to a simmer, stirring constantly. When the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, pour it through a sieve directly onto the dissolved, bloomed gelatin/water mixture. Whisk to combine.
  • Allow this mixture to cool in the fridge until it begins to set, about an hour (possibly longer). Whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the rum to the custard/gelatin mix and then gently fold in the egg whites.
  • Pour this mixture onto the biscuit base and refrigerate overnight or until set. Whip the cream with the remaining tsp of vanilla and the icing sugar. Top the set custard with the cream and shaved chocolate.
  • Serves 8-10 rum-loving people (like Nova Scotians! We love our rum). Store in the fridge and eat within two days.

Maple Pecan Cookie Bars

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Today has been a bad day.

It’s not like I didn’t realize it would be a bad day. Ciara’s been cutting her eye teeth for what seems like ages now and has grown fond of 3am, two-hour-long hangouts on the couch. So yeah, when your three-year-old wakes up at 7am and you’ve just managed to get back to sleep you are definitely not starting your day on the right foot.

So we had a slow morning. Luckily I batch-cook pancakes on the weekends so Maeve can have a quick breakfast if need be, but still, by the time I had her, myself and Ciara washed, dressed, breakfasted and out the door it was well past 9am. Maeve was fairly late for playschool.

It had been a frosty night. After dropping Maeve off, Ciara and I went to town (town being Thurles, about 20 minutes away from the farm). On Tuesdays and Thursdays Ciara hangs out with my friend while I make donuts and other goodies to sell at The Green Sheep. On the way in, my car hit a patch of black ice and I was so close to losing control of my car and sliding off into a hedge. I honestly don’t know how I managed to keep the car on the road. Needless to say, I crawled the rest of the way into town.

When I got to The Green Sheep, it was closed because my friend, the owner, thought I had a doctor’s appointment this morning and she had to go to a parent/teacher meeting. I had also thought I had a doctor’s appointment but thankfully called to double-check – it’s actually next week.

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My friend got back from parent/teacher and I managed to make some apple fritters and deep-clean my cooking equipment. Then, someone came into the café and I could hear them say, “Tell Janine to go move her car – the ticket guy is out there!”

Now, before you say anything: I know I should be paying for parking. BUT you get 15 minutes of free parking in Thurles, so I was taking advantage of that (ok, maybe too much advantage).

So I got to my car before the ticket guy gave me a ticket. However; he remembered me from two weeks ago, when he had fined me for having out-of-date car tax. I had just gotten this car a few months ago and with Christmas… well… I knew I was playing with fire. I paid for my tax once he ticketed me, but it was still in the post. He didn’t give me another fine; instead he chewed my ear off.

Combine this with exhaustion from being a parent and the hormones of a crazy pregnant lady and… well, you get the idea of how I’m feeling right now.

I basically want to cry myself to sleep. And then sleep for a really, really long time.

Instead, though, I might make some more of these Maple Pecan Cookie Bars. They’re so easy to put together and taste amazing.

Baking is really therapeutic, isn’t it? You’re in control. Your hands are busy. Your mind is in a zen-like state. This is probably why I liked working in the pastry sections of restaurants so much, even though I’m not really a pastry chef. That section of the restaurant oozes calm while the others get chaotic.

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Anyway, back to these delicious, nutty little morsels. They have a brown sugar cookie base and a maple pecan topping that is soft, chewy and crunchy all at once. The maple flavour really comes through (and I was using the generic maple syrup – even though it claims to be “100% Canadian Pure”, it’s way too inexpensive to be any good).

They were a hit at the café, so I’ll be officially adding them to The Siùcra Shack‘s menu and will put them on rotation at The Green Sheep.

Give them a try; they’re so forgiving. Baking them will make you forget all about your crap day.

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Maple Pecan Cookie Bars

Ingredients:

For the base:

250g/1cup plain flour

110g/2/3 cup brown sugar

110g/1/2 cup butter

For the topping:

1 egg

55g/1/3 cup brown sugar

75ml/1/3 cup maple syrup

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 bag (about 250g or 1 cup) whole pecan halves

Flaky sea salt

Directions:

  • Preheat your oven to 180∘C (350∘F). Line a rectangular baking tray with parchment and set aside.
  • In a bowl, (or in your stand mixer; paddle attachment), cream the brown sugar and butter for the base. Then, add the flour and mix until fully incorporated.
  • Press the cookie dough into the baking tray with your fingers. When the dough is evenly spread out, blind bake for about 15 minutes. Check it at 12 minutes; you don’t want it too dark.
  • Take the baked cookie base out of the oven and cool slightly. In a bowl, mix all of the ingredients for the filling except the sea salt and pecans.
  • Pour the filling over the top of the cookie base. Arrange the pecan halves over the top.
  • Bake the bars, still at 180∘C/350∘F, for another 15 minutes or until it’s just set. If the top seems soft that’s ok. It will set as it cools.
  • Allow the bars to cool completely in the pan. Then, remove the whole thing (parchment and all) and slice into bars or squares.
  • These guys will keep for 5-ish days (they don’t usually make it that long, though)

Una O’Dwyer’s Black Pudding & Thyme Sausage Strata

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Before we found out I was pregnant with our third child, I was in the best shape of my life.

When we got back to the farm after our 2016 Pan-Atlantic/Cross-Canada Adventure, I took up running. Actually, I took up running while I was home in Nova Scotia. The longer evenings and milder temperatures in June gave me a bit of energy. I started tracking my progress (and my caloric intake) on my smartphone. I started the Couch to 5k app and slowly, ever slowly, went from barely being able to run for a minute at a time to running for 25 minutes straight, without stopping.

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I was eating stuff like this pre-pregnancy/pre-strata.

Some runners may scoff at a mere 25 minute run (a jog, really) but for me – as someone who absolutely hated running; who swore she would never, ever be a runner – it was the biggest deal. I never thought I’d be able to do it, but I did.

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Then I got pregnant again. And the extreme exhaustion started creeping in, usually around mid-afternoon. And I started letting my three year old watch endless episodes of Paw Patrol so I could nap on the couch while Ciara napped in her room. And I started craving Big Macs every day at 2pm.

Yes, the calorie-counting went out the window, as did my tri-weekly run – even though my doctor told me I’d be fine to continue. It was just a bit too much.

But I miss it. 25 weeks into this pregnancy, I’m excited to meet our new baby and get back into some kind of exercise regime.

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But the calorie-counting? I don’t miss that. Especially when I can eat things like this decadent black pudding sausage-laden strata, made with Irish cheese (I used Derg Cheddar – they make their cheese using only raw, summer milk here in Tipperary), without feeling guilty.

Una O’Dwyer (aka The Butcher’s Daughter) makes really great sausages. She has a shop in Cashel, Tipperary – about a 40 minute drive from the farm – and sells a wide range of her sausages nationwide. I made this strata with her black pudding & thyme sausages. The earthy flavour of the black pudding went really well with the creamy farmhouse cheddar.

Oh, and thanks to all that pre-pregnancy running, my BMI went down an entire 3 points and I lost more than 15 pounds. We’ll see what the scales say post-pregnancy, but in the meantime I’m going to have a second helping of strata – with a generous dollop of herby sour cream.

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Una O’Dwyer’s Black Pudding & Thyme Sausage Strata

Ingredients:

1 loaf crusty bread, cut into thin slices

1 package Cashel Fine Foods Black Pudding & Thyme Sausages, casings removed

500g button or chestnut mushrooms, sliced

1 large onion, diced

500g cherry tomatoes, cut in half

250g/1 cup aged cheddar cheese (I used raw Derg Cheddar), grated

1 Tbsp rapeseed/olive oil

1 Tbsp butter (for greasing)

10 large eggs

200ml/3/4 cup cream

2 tsp Dijon mustard

2 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

To Serve:

Chopped, fresh herbs (parsley, thyme or chives)

250g/1 cup sour cream

Directions:

  • Preheat your oven to 400∘F (200°C, no fan). Grease a large casserole dish with 1 Tbsp of butter.
  • Heat a large skillet to medium-high on the stovetop. Add the olive oil, then add the diced onion.
  • Cook the onion for five minutes, or until translucent. Add the mushrooms and sausages and continue to fry until tender and caramelized (about 8-10 minutes). You’ve removed the casings from the sausages, so at this stage you can break up the sausages with a wooden spoon.
  • Take half the sliced bread and layer it evenly on the bottom of the buttered casserole dish. Add the sausage/mushroom/onion mixture over the top, then sprinkle that with half the cheddar cheese.
  • Sprinkle the halved cherry tomatoes over the cheese, then layer the other half of the bread over top.
  • In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, Dijon, salt and pepper. Carefully pour the egg mixture over the casserole, ensuring each area is well-coated. Sprinkle the remaining cheddar over the top.
  • Allow to sit for at least 30 minutes, or up to 24 hours, before baking for 45-55 minutes. If you stick a sharp knife in the strata and some egg oozes out, you’ll know it’s not ready. Cook for another 10-15 minutes.
  • Serve hot with a dollop of sour cream and fresh herbs. This casserole serves 8-12 regular people, or 3-4 pregnant ladies.

Simple Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookies

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Maeve turned three last August. These days, she seems to change without me or her dad noticing. Every now and then she makes me stop in my tracks and admire the little human being she is becoming.

Last night over dinner, she started to sing a song. This in itself is not unusual – she is constantly singing. The song choice wasn’t even surprising. She has been regaling us with Christmas carols since November, and Christmas being over for weeks has done nothing to stop her from singing them. It was the language in which she was singing that made me pause and ponder.

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She was singing Away in a Manger in Irish. My little baby. Broken, badly mispronounced Irish, but Irish nonetheless. I thought she was singing in gibberish – Pat corrected me. I knew her playschool teachers had been teaching the students some Irish words, but I thought “bed” and “tree” were the bulk.

I am so proud. Not just of her, but of our community. Our local school is extremely small and fights for numbers as the population dwindles but it has great staff and a fabulous playschool attached. Maeve races in every morning and barely stops to say goodbye.

She has learned so much from her patient, gentle teachers. At three, she has become a truly integrated member of society – a society I didn’t even know existed ten years ago. It makes me really happy.

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OK, maybe having her back at playschool five days a week after a long, shack-happy Christmas break makes me happy, too. Gotta stay honest.

Anyway, yesterday was her first day back. When she got home, I asked her if she wanted to do some baking. I already knew her answer. She always wants to do some baking.

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She asked if we had any chocolate chips for cookies. We didn’t; we had something even better. I had reorganized our massive bookshelf while she was in school (I know!) and found THREE WHOLE BARS of Belgian milk chocolate I had purchased on my weekend away in Brussels that we had somehow forgotten to eat (I know). Coarsely chopped, the creamy, aromatic chocolate was perfect for our chewy cookies.

But, you know. Chocolate chips are fine, too. If you can’t get to Belgium.

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In other news, cookies are a great way to introduce your small child to baking. Mostly because:

  1. It’s really difficult to screw up a cookie. Even when they’re bad, they’re still good.
  2. If the child wants to mix, mix, mix, you won’t end up with a tough, overworked mess. Cookie dough is very forgiving.
  3. Cookies taste good. Everyone likes ’em.
  4. If your kid insists on cracking the eggs herself, you can pick half a shattered eggshell out of cookie dough more easily than, say, cake batter (half the batch eaten and we haven’t found any pieces yet!).

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Ciara was eating chocolate overseeing the cookie-baking from her highchair, in case you were wondering. She’s a tough boss, but luckily she approved of the final product.

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Simple Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Ingredients:

1 cup/250g softened butter

1 cup/250g soft brown sugar

1/2 cup/125g white sugar

1 tsp vanilla

2 eggs

1 cup/250g rolled oats

2.5 cups/625g plain flour

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp flaky sea salt

1 cup/250g chopped chocolate or chocolate chips

Directions:

  • Preheat your oven to 375∘ F (190∘C). No fan. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  • In a large bowl, cream the softened butter with the brown and white sugar. You want the butter to be completely combined with the sugars.
  • Add the vanilla and eggs. Mix until well combined.
  • Add all of the dry ingredients to the bowl and mix. The dough will be slightly sticky, but if you think it’s too sticky you can add more flour (if you like a more robust cookie – I like mine thin and chewy).
  • Fold in the chocolate chunks/chips.
  • Drop cookie dough by the spoonful onto the baking sheets and bake for 10-12 minutes.
  • Cool baked cookies on a wire rack before eating. They’ll keep for days (but definitely won’t last long if your husband, father-in-law and children are anything like mine). You can freeze them, too – they’re great homemade treats to add to lunchboxes!

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48 Hours in Brussels

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Ah, Bruxelles. I fell in love with that charming city over a dreary, cold weekend in November and I’m only now able to tell you about it! Happy new year, dear readers. 2016 was really great for me in lots of ways (like that time my second daughter was born) and really bad in other ways (like that time Donald Trump…).

I think 2017 is going to be really great. Especially for my family, because we’re expanding yet again! Ciara will be 18 months when our third child is born this coming Spring so our two latest babies will be just shy of official “Irish Twin” status, but that won’t make our lives any less hectic. I’m just gonna embrace the craziness and be as kind to myself as possible.

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With that said, why wouldn’t I jump at the chance of a weekend away in one of Europe’s coolest cities? A few girlfriends and I bought cheap Ryanair tickets (€40 return) and rented an apartment for the weekend (which also worked out to about €40 per person). We were as close to the downtown core as you can possibly get, so our accommodation was a steal (and very clean, and very charming – here’s the link to the Airbnb).

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Our group was split between girls who wanted to party and girls who wanted to sleep (aka the pregnant ladies with kids at home). We all wanted to shop and eat. The location suited everyone’s tastes – just steps away from the Grand Place, the pedestrian shopping streets and the bar district. Artisan chocolate shops, French patisseries, waffle kiosks and proper Belgian friteries were absolutely everywhere. A real food heaven.

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On Saturday morning we gathered with other poor backpackers for a free walking tour of the city. Our guide (Oriane from Viva Brussels Walking Tours) was absolutely brilliant. I don’t normally like guided tours – it’s difficult to escape if the tour is really boring – but Oriane was funny, knew her history and gave good tips on where and what to eat/drink in the city. It was a cold, clear day but we were dressed warmly and enjoyed the exercise.

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I spent a lot of time buying chocolate and eating waffles. I must have averaged three waffles per day. The best thing about a true Liège waffle (the term “Belgian” waffle is incorrect since there are two types of waffle in Belgium – the Brussels waffle and the Liège, which is the one we tend to associate with Belgium) is that you can eat it on the go. Most shops will offer all kinds of sweet toppings, but DON’T – it’s just overkill. A proper Liège waffle is already sweet. Wrap it in a napkin and eat while you take in the sights.

As mentioned, there is no shortage of great quality Belgian chocolate on offer in the pedestrian areas off Grand Place. Your biggest problem will be deciding what to buy and from which shop. I bought several types of chocolate from different places and even bought some generic Belgian chocolate at the supermarket – all delicious.

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Other food and drink options worth exploring in Brussels include the famed Speculoos biscuits (my faves came from Maison Dandoy), traditional double-fried frites and, of course, Belgian beer. I know I’m pregnant, but I still bought a small bottle of Gueuze – an old-style Lambic beer which is fermented by particles in the air found only around Brussels. It had a sour, cidery taste. Really nice.

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And the frites? Oh my GAWD the frites. Our apartment was just around the corner from one of Brussels’ best friteries – Friterie du Café Georgette. The frites are triple-fried in beef fat, giving them an addictive flavour and perfect texture. They put Irish chips to shame. With a bit of mayo on the side, these frites made a good, cheap meal for us on more than one occasion.

I wasn’t so crazy about our final meal. Our tour guide had mentioned that Chez Lèon – an old-school Belgian restaurant – served great moules frites. Since the restaurant wasn’t far from our apartment we thought it would be a good place to go for dinner. The ambiance was wonderful. We had an older waitor with flawless tableside service. He was also a shameless flirt and a born entertainer. Unfortunately, my mussels weren’t nearly as vibrant; both moules and frites were disappointingly bland.

Dessert was a different affair (probably since most of the cooking was done tableside). I had a Normandy-style pancake. It might be the best dessert I’ve ever had (a hefty claim, but it was just that good – done simply, served hot – delicious).

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I’d love to go back to Brussels, or explore some of Belguim’s other cities, with my husband someday – preferably when I can drink beer again. The flight is an easy 1.5 hours from Dublin and the city is breathtaking. Don’t get hung up on terrorist threats; just don’t. Life is too short, and Brussels is too beautiful and fun to miss.

And those frites…

*This is not a sponsored post; no freebies were had. Just good times with friends.

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Tipperary Lamb + New Potato Curry

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Things are going to go a bit crazy in the next few weeks. Someone recently made fun of me and my penchant for list-writing, so I think I’ll go ahead and write this post in list form.

  1. My daughter is going to preschool on the first of September. My daughter. Is school aged. I could have sworn we just brought her back from the hospital. I could have sworn I wasn’t old enough to have a child in school. But there you go. Next week, my baby will be taking her first step toward complete and utter independence from Mama. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
  2. My other baby is going to be minded by someone other than me for a few hours a day while Maeve is in school. I’m not sure how this is going to go either, but I’m happy enough knowing she’s being cared for by a good friend and I will literally be across the street the entire time.
  3. I’m starting a business. I have no capital, no “starting a business” experience and no idea how this is going to go. I’m giving it a shot. I’m giving it a year. If it works, great. If not, I’ll be content in the knowledge that I started off small enough to (hopefully) not lose that much money.
  4. “Janine! You’re starting a business?! What business?”, I hear you asking. Well, readers, maybe I’ll be ready to speak more about it next week or the week after, but since I’m still waiting on a few things I will keep a lid on the details for now.

So yeah. Things are happening. Scary, exciting, crazy things. I hope you tag along with me for the journey.

A good curry always calms me down at the end of the day – especially lamb curry made with delicious Tipperary lamb from Lacey’s Butchers in Thurles and new Irish potatoes. I threw in some spinach to make it look healthier, but honestly – it’s not a bad dish. It’s made with really great ingredients, a little olive oil and lots of spicy TLC (and salt). A bit of basmati rice, a dollop of natural yogurt and a sprinkling of fresh coriander bring it to proper meal status.

Tipperary Lamb + New Potato Curry

Ingredients: 

1 lamb shoulder, deboned and cut into large-ish chunks

500g new potatoes, cut in half or thirds (make them the same size as the lamb chunks)

1 really big onion, or two smaller ones

3 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped

1 Tbsp fresh ginger, finely chopped

1 bunch fresh spinach, washed and coarsely chopped

1 tbsp tomato paste

2 tsp garam masala

1 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1 L (4 cups) hot beef stock

Salt, to taste

Juice of one lemon

Natural yogurt and Fresh Coriander, for serving

Directions:

  • Heat a large dutch oven or any heavy-bottomed, large pot on the stovetop on high. It needs to be smoking hot before you start cooking.
  • When it’s well heated, add 2 Tbsp olive oil, then add the chopped onion. Cook the onion for 5 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning. Then add the lamb to brown.
  • When the lamb is browned, add the garlic, ginger and spices. Cook an additional 2-3 minutes, until fragrant (don’t get scared if the bottom of your pot is starting to look brown – that’s all flavour).
  • Add the tomato paste and mix thoroughly through the other ingredients, cooking an additional minute. Then add the hot beef stock. Bring to a boil.
  • Turn the heat down so the curry is at a simmer. Cook until the lamb is slightly tender and the sauce has reduced by half (about an hour), then add the potatoes. (If you need to add more stock at this point, go ahead. Even some hot water is fine if you think the sauce is too thick).
  • Continue to simmer until the potatoes are fork tender, the lamb is completely tender and the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Add the fresh spinach and stir through until wilted.
  • Season to taste using the salt and lemon juice. I like lots of acidity, but some don’t. Just go with your gut.
  • Serve over hot rice or warmed flatbreads, a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkling of fresh coriander.

PS: I wasn’t asked to write nice things about Lacey’s Butchers in Thurles. I just really like their stuff. They don’t even know I’m writing this, or that I made this delicious curry with their gorgeous lamb.

 

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