31 October, 2007

Irish adventures come to an end

We ventured a tiny ways afield, to Jerpoint Abbey near Thomastown, and it is worth a visit. Massive Gothic church and the ruins of a refectory, shining in the sunlight. So odd to have huge lorries rumbling by and shouting workmen commiserating over their lunches nearby, with the incredible stillness of the stone ruins all around us. Every once in awhile we came upon a small carved detail that brought to mind the real people who slaved over the construction, and the real monks who walked around the lawns with their hands tucked in their sleeves, thinking unworldly thoughts. And there was a kitten! Avery and I completely lost our heads, trotting after it with outstretched hands until it slithered under an off-limits doorway and was gone. An abbey kitten. We came away with Monuments in the Past: Photographs 1860-1936, and pored over the images of Victorian ladies picking their dainty way over castle ruins, holding up their skirts, as we had a lovely lunch in the Watergarden Cafe in Thomastown, a little tearoom dedicated to helping mentally and physically handicapped people in the nearby towns. Drop in when you've visited the abbey and have their salmon dip, or the tomato and six bean hummous. Delicious and inexpensive.

Avery paid for her front-seat privileges by having to open and close the gates for us every time we left the Castle! And look at this amazing gravestone we discovered in a nearby cemetery: why do you suppose someone from OUR castle was buried across the road and quite a distance away from his own grounds? I had an idea that the Irish Landmark Trust made a mistake, and that the real Clomantagh Castle was the structure under scaffolding that loomed over the cemetery, not the one we were staying in. Could that be true? Or is the Clomanto buried in the other cemetery a rogue cousin? A mystery to solve.

Finally it was our last day, one more cosy warm dinner around the Stanley stove, a few more games of Solitaire (a very clever way to help your Form VI daughter practice her maths without realising it) and we packed up. How do the books we bring with us seem to multiply as we travel? And mounds of filthy clothes, spattered about the ankles with mud, sleeves covered in horsey spit from our strolls in the countryside and grass from where Avery rolled around at the abbey, and mine with cooking spills from a kitchen with no apron. And we were off to catch the ferry back home, leaving the Castle behind in the pre-dawn mist. Thanks, Ireland, for a fabulous adventure.

Have you ever lain awake wondering what to do with your leftover cream of mushroom soup? I didn't think so, but as it happens, I have, and here is my best effort. It all started with the mushroom soup I had in Thomastown, which was delicious but made me want to make my own, with a dash of white wine, so I did. Only... no hand blender, which is just about the only kitchen tool I own that breaks the Laurie Colwin rule, "one must not have any implement in the kitchen that can do only one thing." I thought I could not live without my hand blender, but it turns out that with a little assiduous chopping, I could. The soup was lovely, but the chicken dish that followed was truly sublime, and won the John and Avery "Best Dinner of the Holiday" award, and you know how tough the competition can be for THAT.

Cream of Mushroom Soup
(serves two, plus leftovers)

1 pound button mushrooms (or baby portabello), finely chopped
2 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small white onion, minced
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups beef stock (from a cube worked fine)
1/2 cup cream
pinch dried thyme leaves
salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a heavy stockpot and add mushrooms, garlic and onion, saute till all are soft. Pour over wine and stock and simmer until mushrooms are very soft, then add cream and seasonings and simmer until reduced to a nice soup texture. Serve with toast soldiers.


Creamy Mushroom Chicken Breasts
(serves four)

4 chicken breast fillets, well-trimmed
2 tbsps butter
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
6 large mushrooms, sliced thick
leftover mushroom soup
1/2 cup cream

Saute the garlic and mushrooms in the butter in a heavy skillet until slightly caramelised and push to the sides of the skillet. Lay chicken breasts in skillet and cook on each side until slightly browned, then pour leftover mushroom soup over, and cover the skillet. Cook over low heat, turning occasionally and basting with the soup. When chicken is cooked, removed breasts to a warm platter, turn up the heat (or on a Stanley, lift the burner lid and use the hot burner!) and add cream. Stir sauce until it's reduced to the consistency you want, put the chicken back in to warm, and serve with mashed potatoes and sauteed mixed red peppers, asparagus and sugar snap peas. Lovely!

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