Dreams Do Come True in New Orleans

Before we begin, I should probably warn you that this is one of our most disgraceful posts yet. It is full of scandalous Barbie cakes…

 

Tiana, courtesy of the Moulin Rouge? Yikes....

 

Underage gingerale…

 

Oh dearie me...

 

And about 12 6-year-olds on sugar highs.

 

 

It’s just shameful. They’ll probably kick us off the internet. But seriously, when you’re throwing a Mardi Gras birthday party, what else can you expect?

 

 

 

If you haven’t noticed by now, we tend to try a little too hard when it comes to Francesca’s birthday parties And I swear, we promised ourselves we’d be good this year, and we wouldn’t go overboard. But she told us she wanted a Princess and the Frog party a year ago, and since a) we had a year to plan it, b) New Orleans is one of our favorite cities of all time, and c) Princess and the Frog is the most food-centric Disney Princess movie (and, by extension, our absolute favorite), we were really left with no choice.

 

 

 

 

For those of you who haven’t seen this awesome movie, Tiana is a waitress who dreams of one day opening her own restaurant. Her beignets can only be described as “man-catching,” and she can make gumbo using only the greenery of a swamp. Suffice it to say she could win any episode of Extreme Chef with her hands tied behind her back. Powerful voodoo turns her into a frog and she travels all over New Orleans and the Bayou with her slightly dysfunctional Prince Charming (also frog), all in the span of a single Mardi Gras. It’s a wonderful movie because it displays all the many faces of New Orleans: it begins with her cooking with her daddy in her modest childhood home, then follows her through a fancy party in the Garden District and a journey through the surrounding swamp before culminating on Bourbon Street. We wanted all this to come through at our party.

 

 

When the children arrived, they first sat down to make Mardi Gras masks to get everyone in a festive mood. Like all of the activities we prepared, this one is cheap and easy to assemble. All it takes are blank masks (paper ones work much better than plastic, if you can find them) and then sequins, feathers, markers, glitter glue, or whatever else you can think of to add to the mix. And kids around this age tend to get wonderfully creative. That or we just had a group of budding fashion designers. Which I suppose is possible.

 

 

 

 

While we got the next activity ready, the kids played the one game that truly every party must have – pin-the-[something]-on-the-[something else]. Children have a wonderful way of improving on this game. Who knew pin-the-tail-on-the-easel, or pin-Cinderella’s-slipper-on-the-wall could be so entertaining? In the spirit of the story we set up pin-the-kiss-on-the-frog. We couldn’t turn him back into a prince, but the majority of them got pretty close – and they didn’t even cheat this year! We had Isabella draw our frog, but you don’t need an Isabella to try this at home… any oversized amphibian will do.

 

 

 

Next we brought everyone back to the table to make their own gumbo, just like our favorite chef, Tiana. We simply baked little puff pastry shells, and set out a variety of “ingredients” for the kids to put inside. Some of the ingredients were a bit atypical (for example, hot dogs stood in for traditional andouille), but like any stew, gumbo is flexible, even when kids are not. Before the party we made a gumbo sauce to pour over the top, for any kids who wanted it. The kids felt so grown up “cooking” their own snack, and some even requested seconds!

 

 

Mom read a beautiful rendition of The Frog Prince while we set up candy for the Edible Swamps, our final culinary activity. Inspired by those “cups of dirt” that were probably the highlight of everyone’s childhood, we gave each kid a mini tray of pudding, and an assortment of candies ranging from gummy frogs and gators to Cadbury Flake (for logs) and green sprinkles (for algae).

 

 

 

 

Before the party began, Francesca told us that “nutrients” (healthy things) were against the rules. So naturally we moved straight from chocolate pudding to the Tiana-shaped chocolate fudge cake. We blew out the candles…

 

 

 

Toasted the worlds greatest six-year-old (objectively speaking)…

 

 

And cut the cake.

 

 

The kids clearly hadn’t had enough sugar, so we sent everyone home with a box full of sweets from the green, gold and purple candy table.

 

 

 

For the grownups we made a Cajun Crab Dip, Andouille Sausage with Apple Compote on Baguette, and of course Buttermilk Beignets… because we can’t have anybody, grownup or child, leaving our house if they’re not over fed (we’re Mediterranean, we can’t help it).

 

 

When you have a year to plan a party and you have all of New Orleans to live up to, the expectations are pretty high… at least Francesca’s were. But it’s worth noting that, even a week later, all but two of her presents are still sitting, blissfully wrapped, in the living room, waiting for the day when her satisfaction wears off and she realizes what she’s missing. Mission accomplished? I think so.

 

Ps- We have, of course, about a million recipes to share with you, which we’ll post over the next week or so. Stay tuned!

Everybody’s Irish

 

As a cooking instructor, I love Ballymaloe for their genius educational philosophy, for their respect for the environment, and for the care they put into each aspect of a meal. But, as we all know, none of that means much if the food isn’t good.

 

A small sampling of the beautiful selection of food that was prepared during our demonstration

 

But of course, the food at Ballymaloe is incredible. The recipes were cleverly divided into clusters, each centered on a core ingredient. For example, Rory created many dishes based on Irish Smoked Salmon.

First, he paired it with sweet cucumber salad, potato wafers (fresh chips), and horseradish cream…

 

 

…then he made a Salmon Roulade with cream cheese and dill…

 

Smoked salmon is rolled around herbed cream cheese filling. These are just two of the beautiful ways this recipe can be plated.

 

…and finally a beautiful Salmon-Trout Pâté.

 

Smoked salmon is placed in a ramekin, filled with a beautiful salmon-troute mousse, and then beautifully turned out onto a plate.

 

For our main course, he made a breathtaking Pork en Croute (tenderloin in puff pastry) with Duxelle (mushroom) stuffing. He served this with a simple but delicious brambley apple sauce and gratin dauphinoise, a spectacular and versatile potato gratin which is cooked almost completely in cream and milk in a saucepan and then baked for only 10-15 minutes. It was just amazing. I can’t wait to make it myself!

 

Left: Rory slices open a pork tenderloin, and Right: stuffs it with duxelle mushroom stuffing.

 

Dessert was the most spectacular part of the meal. Here, Rory used ice cream as his core ingredient. He made several, including chocolate, cappuccino, coffee, vanilla and praline flavors. And being a genius food stylist as well as chef, he came up with endless plating styles!

 

Instead of investing in an ice cream maker, Ballymaloe advises making a mousse and then freezing it. That way, you get the airyness of ice cream made in a machine, without unnecessary kitchen gadgets!

 

He made parfaits with hot chocolate sauce, an ice cream bombe made with coffee, chocolate and praline ice cream…

 

Frozen chocolate mousse bombe is topped with pastry cream and little chocolate-filled chocolate cups. Basically death by chocolate, Irish style.

 

… and cappuccino ice cream served with chocolate curls in beautiful coffee cups…

 

Coffee cups are filled with coffee ice cream and topped with beautiful chocolate curls.

 

… but the best things he made, without a doubt, were the iced chocolate oranges. This recipe is simple brilliance at its finest. He simply hollowed an orange, filled it with mousse, froze it and garnished with orange flavored cream and a tiny bay leaf. So beautiful, so delicious.

 

 

In three short hours, Rory even taught us how to delicately make tiny chocolate cases. It takes a lot of patience, but other than that all you need is cupcake wrappers, melted chocolate (50-70% cocoa) at room temperature and a spoon. You carefully spread the chocolate along the sides of the paper, taking great caution to spread the chocolate evenly in a thin layer. Refrigerate for at least an hour and then gently peel the paper away.

 

Rory fills a cupcake wrapper with chocolate to make adorable little cups that you can make at home!

 

Expect some to crumble your hand – Rory says a few always will, its just the nature of this delicious beast – but it is thoroughly worth the effort. Here they are, filled with amazing chocolate ice cream!

 

Clockwise from top left: An assistent tops chocolate filled cups with beautiful pastry cream; she then covers them with cocoa powder; others are flattened on top for an equally fantastic look.

 

Just writing about Ballymaloe, I long to return. I’ll leave you with some other images of my day. Pictured first is the herb garden, of which Susan, a member of Darina’s cheery staff, gave me a lovely private tour as the sun was setting. The focal point of the meticulous garden is the Myrtle bush, in honor of Darina’s mother-in-law, Myrtle, the original Ballymaloe maverick. She was Alice Waters before Alice Waters was. She opened a Ballymaloe’s acclaimed restaurant a little less than 50 years ago and she insisted on changing the menu daily based on what was fresh and seasonal, which was unheard of back in 1964.

 

Left: the myrtle bush dedicated to Myrtle Allen, Darina's mother-in-law. Right: a bush in the Ballymaloe gardens.

 

Most of these recipes can be found in the glorious food bible, Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course. Reading the book isn’t of course, as cool as being one of those lucky people who gets to spend three months in Ballymaloe heaven, but it’s a treasure of delicious, manageable recipes, and it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite cookbooks. Please check it out, and let us know if you decide to try anything!

 

Images of the beautiful shell house in the Ballymaloe garden.

Beyond Brown Bread

Before we left for Ireland a few weeks ago, a foodie friend told me about Ballymaloe Cookery School in the tiny town of Shanagarry a short distance from the coast in County Cork. I thought it would be great way to spend an afternoon, never really expecting to have an inspirational day. But every once in a while you come across an experience that gives you perfect joy, and that is the kind of the journey I had recently at Ballymaloe.

Ingredients set out for a cookery class

Ireland is known for ancient castles, for mysterious stone circles dotting the Celtic countryside, and for lush green hills with sheep and picturesque houses.

What you think when you think Ireland

But recently, Ireland has become packed with exciting restaurants and chefs promoting local, seasonal, and organic versions of traditional Irish cuisine. Yes, mushy peas still unfortunately grace pub menus, but you’re just as likely to find fresh salmon smoked by a local artisan or prawns caught just hours earlier wrapped in phyllo dough.

Smoked Salmon with Potato Wafers and Horseradish Cream

Mark generously offered to drive 2½ hours from our beautiful seaside house in Dingle,  so I could take an afternoon class.

Francesca and Isabella run on the beach

Fortunately there was a wonderful zoo near the school, so Mark, Isabella and Francesca were happy to let me leave.

Yes this is Ireland. No it's not typical.

I had my preconceived notions of what a “cookery” school would be. We’d learn the secrets of brown bread and black pudding, and there would something with bacon in it for sure! I’d leave feeling saying was a pleasant few hours…

Dead wrong.  Not even a little right.

Oranges filled with mousse ice cream.

As we pulled into the narrow old gates to the Ballymaloe estate, and I entered the school, I knew instantly that I just entered Irish gastro-heaven. The aroma from lunch students just finished wafted so intoxicatingly. A beautiful clay bowl of floating flowers and a sumptuous basket of delicious fresh foccacia baked with superb black olives welcomed visitors.

 

Beautiful flowers in a bowl

Darina Allen along with her brilliant brother Rory founded Ballymaloe in 1983. Since then, they have created a nationwide movement from their sprawling estate in the Irish countryside; 400 acres of organic vegetable and herb gardens, cottages, and cow pastures. They are collectively the Alice Waters of Ireland (in fact Rory helped Waters at Chez Panisse in the ’70s).

Rory puts the finishing touches on a chocolate mousse cake.

At Ballymaloe, there is a love for the all aspects of a great meal, going beyond ingredients and encompassing the earth, the community (Darina founded the first modern day farmers markets in Ireland), and even the seasons. Darina and Rory bring respect, passion and infectious joy not only to the food, but also to each person they teach. You see so many happy people at Ballymaloe, despite the long hours they work, because they see cooking as an opportunity to share the gospel of great food.

Cooking together

I’m not sure many chefs or schools in the United States can boast that virtually all the ingredients are local, organic fresh and self-sustaining as much as we all believe these ideals. It helps that Ballymaloe devotes more than 100 acres, a quarter of their land, to organic gardening. There are 50 varieties of tomatoes, and every herb and root vegetable imaginable. The neighbors provide, the hens, ducks and additional produce when theirs runs out, and the fish in caught in the nearby village of Ballycotton. Students not only get to experience this first hand, but learn to prepare food that is very well seasoned, beautiful and utterly delicious. The earth, says Darina, is an essential component of great food. She’s been preaching this for decades, long before Whole Foods made it fashionable. On day one, for example, students are introduced to Eileen and Kay, the head gardeners, and Darina herself (who describes herself as an eccentric, grey-haired hippie woman on a mission) shows them a barrow full of rich soil. After running her hands through it, she tells them, “Remember, this is where it all starts, in the good earth, and if you don’t have clean fertile soil, you won’t have good food or pure food.”  Then they get their first recipe; how to make compost!

It's amazing how Ireland has a knack for looking beautiful even in the middle of winter.

Their teaching method is very clever. The professional students watch a three-hour demonstration every afternoon, which is the class I took. Afterwards, there is a tasting so they know what how each dish should taste and students get ideas for presentation. The next morning, they cook the same exact menu and at lunchtime everyone (students and instructors) has a family meal and enjoys the fruits of their hard work.

Beautiful table set for a family-style meal after classes

Perhaps the real reason I fell so in love with this place is that their philosophy about food is so similar to my own. No foams, weird vapors or dumb food combinations. I can’t stand it when chefs offer things like fried watermelon with wilted dandelion greens. (I’m serious. I had this once at a restaurant considered one of the best in the country. It was of, course, dreadful). The food prepared here is innovative, delicious and beautiful, but doesn’t involve Herculean effort to prepare. And of course, it was perfectly seasoned. A great chef knows that the above all else, the food must be well seasoned or it won’t taste good. It seems obvious, but this makes the difference between a good meal and a great one.

This sea salt is, perhaps, the best in the world.

The demo featured more than 20 great, clever and versatile recipes featuring fish, meats, vegetable dishes and desserts with ingredients that were perfectly fresh and beautifully presented. Stay tuned for the highlights!

To Market To Market

As I started thinking about Cityseed’s fabulous farmer’s market in New Haven’s Wooster Square and as I looked through the hundreds of pictures I’ve taken in recent weeks, I was struck not only by the vibrant colors, the luscious fruits and vegetables, but the remarkably diverse and colorful people who come to this special place Saturday mornings.

We’ve met so many wonderful people at our booth who genuinely care about food and are meticulous about the quality of ingredients they use in their everyday lives. My hats off to them. For those of us who live in or near New Haven, we owe a lot to market manager Rachel Berg, and her tireless staff for running this market so perfectly week after week and making these local and organic foods accessible.

I will be posting a photo essay on the market seasonally since it is such an integral part any foodie’s life; here are some moments of this past glorious summer and just a hint of autumn.

One of the things I just love about the market is that it is one-stop-shopping; you can and should pick your menus for the week based on what the local Connecticut farmers are harvesting that week.

I fell in love with beets this summer since they were so plentiful and were offered in so many colors; orange, white and of course that beautiful dark purple that turns a gorgeous pinkish lavender color when pureed with a bit of cream. We ate them in chilled borschts, we caramelized them for salads with avocado and goat cheese, and sometimes we just ate them roasted with a just a sprinkle of sea salt and coarse pepper.

There is also no better place to buy so many other herbs, vegetables and fruits as well.

Or ingredients for a refreshing salad of arugula, lettuce, tomatoes and red onions.

You can also pick up gorgeous wild flowers, sunflowers and the most spectacular dahlias to decorate your table with too. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to pick up some of the finest baked goods in Connecticut at the Sono Bakery.

One of the reasons to go to the market, of course, is the people watching. It’s some of the best in New Haven.  The shopkeepers and the customers have a lot of pizzaz and personality.

People find many ways of transporting their goods home too; most, of course, are environmentally friendly; You see re-usable bags  and wheels of every kind.

Of course, pampered pets enjoy the morning at the market too. And why not?

I hope I’ve whet your appetite to visit the market, or one nearest your home. But I’m warning you; they’re addictive. Supermarket produce will never look the same again.

If you live nearby and plan to visit the Wooster market, please be sure to come by and say “Hi” to us next time you’re there. We’d love to see you. If you live far away, find your local market and get to know your local growers. They are wonderful people who care about the land and the food we eat.

For now, enjoy these last pictures of autumn’s beginning; I love all things apples and pumpkins, and I promise to have some recipes for you in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, get out there and pick some apples or pumpkins. It’s good for you.

I’m going back into the test kitchen right now so I can come up with some great pumpkin recipes. I’ll be back soon!