The week between the holidays (those being Christmas and New Year's, respectively) is such an odd time. The streets are quiet, friends are in and out of town, and work... who needs it! Back in college, when I didn't care a whit about the looming specter of my ever-expanding credit card debt, I would use this week to travel. New York was always a favorite destination (snow!!!), but there were quite a few other trips too. The most memorable of my mid-holiday trips was to Ireland.
My roommate and I chose our destination as any level-headed, adventure-seeking college student would. We got online and looked for the cheapest international tickets we could find. Turns out in 1999 those were to Dublin. We were sort of hoping for a place where the language was foreign and the men were dark and lusty, where the food was exotic, the weather was beautiful and where we'd be out dancing while the sun came up. So Ireland wasn't exactly what we had in mind, but it would do in a pinch.
To say we threw caution to the wind was putting it somewhat mildly. My roommate (we'll call her Becca, which, coincidentally, is her name) declared that any advanced planning, such as reserving rooms in advance, was far too uptight for two single girls embarking upon the adventure of their lives. No! We would sleep wherever there was a room. And if there was no room? Not to worry, she assured me, we would barter for space on couches in hostel lobbies. It never came to that, but this aptly describes the attitude we adopted throughout our two week stay in Ireland.
We spent New Year's Eve with a group of Italians who spoke hardly an inkling of English, using hand gestures, dancing and the wee bit of Italian I knew to communicate. We met new friends everywhere we went. Over fish and chips we met an guy who offered to buy us the finest pint of Guinness in all of Gallway. He actually walked us to the pub just to buy us what truly was the finest pint of Guinness I've ever had. On a hike we met an elderly man who had once owned a hostel and acted as a tour guide for wayward college students such as ourselves. He led us on the most beautiful hike through the hills. We exchanged addresses. For years after that hike we were sending each other Christmas cards. We'd start every morning at a new bed and breakfast, often having long drawn out conversations with the owners who were cooking us breakfast. Poor Becca is vegan and could eat little more than the fried tomatoes that were part of the traditional Irish breakfasts. We'd have to craftily sneak her food onto my plate, and I'd eat the two breakfasts to avoid hurt feelings.
We missed more of those breakfasts then we ate though. We slept till noon most mornings and then had to run out the door to catch the 5 remaining hours of daylight. We were usually running somewhere, just before it closed, or just to miss the storm (oh lord, did it rain while we were there!). On one occasion we bought bus tickets from one town to another, it was going to be a long looong trip. No sooner had we loaded our baggage on the bus, then we decided we needed to make one quick trip to the restroom before the long drive. When we returned, it couldn't have been more than 5 minutes later, our bus along with our baggage - and passports - was gone. GONE! I turned to Becca, mortified. Now we'd done it. We'd spent our entire trip in an absent-minded haze of activity, and now we'd done it. Becca though, in true Becca style, informed me that not only was this not a problem, I was in fact being far too uptight. My attitude would not help. So right she was. We hopped on the next bus out. Three hours later our bus stopped to let off some passengers at a bus station in Limerick. We pulled up next to a bus with its trunk open. And inside that trunk, lo and behold, was our luggage. Our luggage!! We hopped out and grabbed our things and never spoke of it again.
After adventure and sheer whimsy, the over-riding theme of our vacation (and indeed any time Becca and I spend together) was food. What could we expect to eat in Ireland, land of the potato famine and Irish soda bread? That was all we knew of the food before our trip. And quite frankly, what did we care? We were going there for the dark lusty men and luxurious beach-y weather, anyhow. Becca is quite the creative eater, being both a vegan and an avid traveler. I could eat anything, but always let Becca select where we ate to make sure she had enough food. I remember her meals, which often became mine as well. Layers of cabbage and potatoes, piled on bread. It was whatever was available mixed together to become it's own tasty beast. One of my strongest memories of the trip was the randomness of those dinners. It was whatever was handy, and then some. And somehow, washed down with some beer, they were divine.
Last week, after many a dinner party and themed meal, our entire refrigerator was a mass of bits of this and pieces of that. Nothing that seemed to compile a whole, but all of which were tasty in their own right. Well, I took those bits and pieces and piled them together into a delicious layered and baked feast. I know it's not Irish in any true sense of the word, but the panade I made reminded me of that trip. The vegetables were hearty and the bread was abundant. It didn't seem like much, but when it was layered and covered in condiments it became a tiny feast. I loved that it reminded me of those days when we scrounged for yummy meals, and somehow the end result was far more delicious and exotic then the individual players in the meal could ever be. Please don't let this meal's completely unphotogenic quality put you off. It ended up being one of the most delicious and complex meals I've had in some time.
Cabbage and Rye Panade
Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
2 cups vegetable stock or broth
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme, stemmed and coarsely chopped
2 Tbsp butter
1 small onion thinly sliced
1-2 Tbsp fresh thyme, stemmed and coarsely chopped
About 1 lb. cabbage, sliced into ribbons
1 cup sliced mushrooms
2-3 Tbsp sherry
1/4 cup parsley
4 thick slices rye bread
1 cup grated Gruyere
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rub a gratin or casserole dish with butter. Prepare the stock or broth. Add the garlic and 1 tsp of the thyme to the broth. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Melt butter in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, mushrooms and 1-2 Tbsp thyme. Cook until onions lightly begin to brown. Add the cabbage and sprinkle with 1 tsp salt. Add 1/3 cup water and 2-3 Tbsp sherry. Cook until cabbage is tender and cooked through, about 20 mins. When done toss with parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Place half the cabbage in the baking dish, cover with the bread slices. Cover the bread with the grated cheese and cover that with the remaining cabbage. Pour the broth over the entire thing and bake until bubbling and the edges of the cabbage leaves are browned, about 45 mins. When serving spoon out scoops of the panade and pour juices in the pan over the top.
See this and other fantastic breads at Yeastspotting on Wild Yeast!