Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Irish Stew

Today I’m going to talk about one of my favorite non-children books.  Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is a book nobody in America seems to have heard of, but everybody should read.  It’s a hilarious story about three Englishmen in the late 1800s, all the best of friends, who decide to take a boat trip down the Thames.  The book is of their adventures while they’re packing and on their trip, as well as a lot of random digressions from the narrator.  The best parts are in relation to food.  For instance, there’s a huge long part about them trying to open a can of pineapple without a can opener, and the injuries to pride and person that result from it.  I reread that part recently, and I was nearly crying from laughter.

I first heard about Three Men in a Boat when I was traveling in England.  While we were visiting Hampton Court Palace, some of us sat next to our tour guide, Ian Godfrey, at lunch.  He asked us if we had gone through the hedge maze on the grounds.

I had, and we talked about people getting lost in there, and the technique for how to get out (I won’t tell you, so that if you’re ever in the Hampton Court Palace maze you can relish in getting lost and figuring it out yourself).  Then he started chuckling to himself.  I asked him what was so funny, and he asked if I had read Three Men in a Boat.  I said I hadn’t.  He continued chuckling to himself as he explained that it was “a very English book,” “a classic,” and “quite silly.”  (I remember during this conversation just relishing in the fact that I was having a conversation with a real Englishman.  His accent was awesome!)  He talked about a particular part of the book, where the characters go into the Hampton Court Palace maze, and get so hopelessly lost that they end up electing a leader and charging about the maze trying to find a way out.  I was totally interested, if only for the cultural aspect – A famous English book that they don’t talk about in America, which has a scene that takes place where I’ve been?  I was all over it.  And the fact that it was supposed to be funny put it at the top of my reading list.  I’ll never forget Ian saying the author of the book, all slow and poetically as only a true Englishman can do: “Jerome K. Jerome.”  He repeated it several times, and I promised I would check it out.

So when I got to Oxford, and I had a tortuous couple of days to wait for the 7th Harry Potter book to come out (how do I manage to sneak Harry Potter into everything?  I astound even myself), I decided to go to Blackwell’s Bookshop and buy Three Men in a Boat

I am forever glad I did.  It’s rich with English humor: ridiculous yet subtle, absurd and yet strangely mundane.  Every bit of it is entertaining – I never got bored reading it.  It's also 100% clean, which is a necessary qualification for me, and very difficult to find.  Plus, I got a kick out of reading parts and thinking, “I’ve been there!”  I loved it so much that I shared it with a bunch of my family members and friends when I got home.  Everyone who read it loved it.  I think it’s now one of my sister Sarah’s favorite books.

I hope that through my ramblings and reminiscences, you get the point: This book is awesome!  And I was delighted, upon rereading it, to realize that it mentions TONS of food!  So I’m going to be posting twice about this delightful, “very English” little book.  Tonight’s feature is Irish stew.

While camping on the bank of the river Thames, the three men – George, Harris, and J (the narrator) – decide that “it would be a splendid opportunity to try a good slap-up supper.  [George] said he would show us what could be done up the river in the way of cooking, and suggested that, with the vegetables and the remains of the cold beef and general odds and ends, we should make an Irish stew” (Jerome 191). 

This would be a wonderful idea, except that none of these men really know how to cook, and George’s understanding of “Irish stew” is shaky at best.  He seems to think that Irish stew is just a bunch of leftovers boiled into a stew.  This doesn’t sound too bad until he starts adding pork pie, cold boiled bacon, and half a tin of potted salmon to the pot.  “He said that was the advantage of Irish stew: you got rid of such a lot of things.  I fished out a couple of eggs that had got cracked, and we put those in.  George said they would thicken the gravy” (192).  They even considered adding a dead water-rat the dog had found.  Fortunately, after some debate, they decided to decline the dog’s offering.

In terms of how the stew actually tasted, J says: “here was a dish with a new flavour, with a taste like nothing else on earth.  And it was nourishing, too….  The peas and potatoes might have been a bit softer, but we all had good teeth, so that did not matter much; and as for the gravy, it was a poem – a little too rich, perhaps, for a weak stomach, but nutritious” (193).

You may be wondering, “Why, Mary, after reading that nasty description, would you ever consider making such a stew?”  Good question.

This whole Irish stew business made me curious.  Clearly George didn’t know what he was doing, so what is a real Irish stew supposed to be like?  I looked it up.  Turns out Irish stew has a pretty set recipe for it’s base – it usually consists of lamb, potatoes, and onion.  Other ingredients vary, but it will commonly also include carrots, cabbage, and parsley.

I decided that didn’t sound nearly as bad as the Three Men in a Boat stew.  I actually wanted to try it.  I figure Jerome K. Jerome wrote so well about the preparation and final product of George’s stew that I could deviate from the literature a bit and make a proper Irish stew (except for the lamb, because I’m cheap).  You can choose for yourself which one you’d like to try.

Irish Stew
Serves 3-4

½ tbsp butter
½ lb beef chuck, cubed in small pieces (1/4 – ½ in)
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
¼ cup onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped in small, thin pieces
2 cups water
1 cup chopped cabbage
1 tsp beef bouillon
2 medium russet potatoes, chopped in small, thin pieces
½ cup frozen peas
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped.

Place butter and meat in pot over medium-high heat.  Add salt and pepper.  Stir the meat until all sides are brown.  Add onions and carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-7 minutes.  Add water and cabbage, cover, and boil mixture for 30-45 min.  Taste broth, and if it needs more flavoring, add bouillon.  Add potatoes and boil for an additional 25 min, still covered.  Add peas and parsley and boil for a few more minutes uncovered.  When the potatoes are soft and the meat is tender, it’s ready for eating!

Browning the meat
How do you like my gigantic pot and plate-lid? I work with what I've got.
After adding the potatoes

The great thing about this stew is that overcooking the potatoes is okay, because it thickens the broth to the characteristic “stew” consistency.  (Please don’t add eggs to thicken the gravy like George did.  Follow these tips for thickening stew.)

This stew was delicious!  Seriously, it was awesome!  It was simple and easy (although I was hungry, so I didn’t like waiting over an hour for it to cook), and it definitely had a distinctly Irish flavor while not being too cabbagey or parsleyish.  What is it about potatoes, cabbage, and parsley that make you think of green hills, flutes, and Riverdance?  It was a nice way to bring me back to my family roots.  I might make this for St. Patrick’s Day instead of corned beef and cabbage (which is a family tradition and definitely good, but the stew is a better). 

I would like to thank Ian Godfrey – who I’ll never see again, I’m sure – for pointing me toward such an amazing book, which led to many laughs and such a yummy dish.  Next week’s post will feature a dessert from Three Men in a Boat (I cooked it tonight, so I promise I’ll post it soon).  Be sure to come back then and check it out!  In the meantime, go to your local library and check out Three Men in a Boat.  Seriously, you won’t regret it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

If You Give a Pig a Pancake

Yes, I know you've all been waiting on me to post for just about forever, or a month. That whole college thing I'm doing is problematic and takes up all my time. So here goes!
"I ONLY EAT PANCAKES!" Audrey yelled as I tried to feed her anything but pancakes for lunch.

No, this is not an excerpt from a book, but a quick glimpse at my life as a nanny. I share a great love of pancakes like Audrey, but her idea of pancakes is putting M&Ms in them and dyeing it purple.

I actually spent a good hour compiling new and exciting pancake recipes to try, so I had to think of a good book so that I could share some of these new recipes. Because school has already started I don't have time to just sit and puzzle over books I've read that mention pancakes. Inspiration struck when I thought of the If You Give... series, I might just have to write a post for all the books.

I hesitate from quoting the book because it's a continual story, you can't just stop in the middle!

"If you give a pig a pancake, she'll want some syrup to go with it. You'll give her some of your favorite maple syrup. She'll probably get all sticky, so she'll want to take a bath." Numeroff
I would highly recommend reading especially once you get down in that mid-semester rut, go to the children’s section of the library and read some books that you read when you were a kid!
Really Ugly Cinnamon Roll Pancakes (Just ugly was already taken)
Yield: 4 servings (4 pancakes) Prep Time: 25 min Cook Time: 10 min
1 heaping cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 Tablespoon canola oil
1 large egg, lightly beaten, add a
second egg if your batter isn’t fluffy enough
1/2 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
4 Tablespoons butter
2 ounces cream cheese

3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Prepare pancake batter: In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk in milk, oil and egg, just until batter is moistened (a few small lumps are fine).

2. In a medium bowl, mix butter, brown sugar and cinnamon. Scoop the filling into a small zip baggie and set aside. You don't want it to be really runny. It's best if it becomes a consistency similar to toothpaste, so squeezable. *I think ours was too thick and looked more like poop than toothpaste, see poopy looking cinnamon mixture below.
3. In a medium, microwave-safe bowl- heat butter and cream cheese until melted. Whisk together until smooth; whisk in powdered sugar and vanilla extract; set aside.
4. Heat large skillet over medium-low heat, if it is too high the sugar will burn! Spray with nonstick spray. Scoop about a 1/2 cup batter onto the skillet. Snip the corner of your baggie of filling and squeeze a spiral of the filling onto the top of the pancake. **Our sugar started burning so we added a bit more batter on top of the cinnamon sugar filling to prevent the sugar from burning. When bubbles begin to appear on the surface, flip carefully with a thin spatula, and cook until browned on the underside, 1 to 2 minutes more. Transfer to a baking sheet or platter and keep in a warm oven until ready to serve.

5. When ready to serve, spoon warmed glaze onto the top of each pancake. Eat and then probably lay down for a while because they're super rich!
*Keep the heat low or your pancakes might cook up too quickly. Don't flip them until you see those bubbles starting to pop on top. Flip them with a wide spatula so you can grasp the whole thing without batter and filling dripping all over the place!

*It's best if you pour the batter onto your skillet, wait a minute or so and then swirl the cinnamon onto the batter. That'll give it a chance to set a little before you add the swirl.

*If your baggie of filling begins to get too thick, just pop it in the microwave for a few seconds to soften it up again. On that same note, it shouldn't be too runny. The consistency of soft toothpaste is perfect. If it's melty and runny, it will tend to run all over your pancakes. Once you micro it, let it sit on the counter at room temp for a while until it thickens slightly.
*Between pancakes take a damp paper towel and carefully wipe up your skillet, helpful for those of us who burnt sugar on their skillet.
*You might want to double the recipe, we got about 4.5 pancakes, yes a half pancake just go with it.

For more pancake fun check out some of these recipes:
I think these are absolutely adorable!
Maybe a little too rich for breakfast but, they look really yummy!
I could keep going with the pancakes but I’ll try to stop now.