Known throughout Ireland and abroad for her unique approach to rural life, American-born urbanite-turned farmer Imen McDonnell continues to fly the flag for locally-produced ingredients, encouraging consumers to seek out the very best– or grow their own – local ingredients.
From her popular blog Farmette to her collaborations with Lens and Larder which bring together photography, feasts and storytelling for retreats which nourish the stomach as much as the creative mind and soul, and colourful food and travel-focused writing and photography and an exciting lifestyle product line on the horizon, Imen is a force to be reckoned with in the Irish food community.
A continuous supporter of Bord Bia, Imen has re-joined the organisation this year to support the European campaign to promote Lamb, #LambTryitLoveIt. Targeting the millennial age demographic, the campaign aims to change the perception of lamb, positioning it as a flavourful, versatile and thoroughly modern ingredient which is especially important to the Irish landscape and European rural economies alike.
We caught up with Imen to discuss her connection to locally-reared lamb as a go-to ingredient.
You have supported the European lamb campaign in the past and have joined forces with Bord Bia again this year to promote the ingredient. Why do you feel so strongly about lamb?
Lamb is such a versatile and flavourful ingredient – I think it’s a real heavy hitter in recipes which is often times overlooked, perhaps for options with a milder flavour. There’s a distinctive robustness to European lamb – the flavour has so much body to it and is richly flavoured, which means it can stand well on its own, but also pairs very well with other flavour profiles.
What flavours do you think go best with lamb?
I really feel that North African spices work very well, and this is proven in the abundance of lamb dishes in region’s cuisine. My favourite preparation is a leg of lamb smothered in harissa and farm honey then slow roasted. It’s such a simple way to prepare the perfect Sunday lunch.
Was lamb a part of your diet when you lived in the States?
Lamb is not as popular in the USA, although every year that I go home I do see more and more producers popping up across the country. It tastes totally different to Irish lamb or lamb from other regions in Europe; we are so lucky to have an abundance of lush pastures and the perfect climate for rearing grass-fed lamb in Ireland, and this climate contributes to the unmatched flavour of Irish lamb.
What cut would you recommend beginning with for a home cook who is new to lamb?
Lamb chops are simple and quick to prepare. I love to pop them into a sealed bag with olive oil, sea salt and pepper and rosemary to marinate, and then grill them to medium rare. They are so succulent and a total crowd pleaser – and this simple preparation really lets the flavour of the lamb shine through. Although you couldn’t beat a good Irish stew, which is a great one-pot meal to feed a family or make leftovers to feed you through the week. I also love cooking with lamb mince which cooks quickly and is so versatile. My recent recipe post including a N’ewe Take on Sloppy Joes combines my affection for classic American dishes with my appreciation for lamb.
As our gorgeous summer gives way to autumn, what is your favourite autumnal dish created using lamb?
There is an amazing slow braised lamb shank recipe that I love to make when the weather gets chillier. It involves a lot of North African spices and is served over super fluffy, white mash in an east- meets-west preparation.
You’re getting us in the mood for autumn! What is autumn like on your farm?
Normally, we would have a lot of calves on the farm each autumn, but this year we have decided not to milk cows during the winter months to give the girls a break, so it’s a bit quieter this autumn than usual! Of course, the hedges are filled with blackberries, sloes, elderberry and rose hips and our orchard trees are heaving with apples, pears and plums. I’ve been finding plenty of ways to put these to use in the kitchen while I can.
You’re lucky that your son Geoffrey is a bit of a foodie himself. Was this always the case? What are your tips for parents who are trying to expand their children’s palates?
Growing up on the farm, it just comes so naturally to him although that never was my intention. I just wanted him to always know where his food comes from, so he was always with me in the kitchen, veg garden, field and farm, but yes indeed he really does love cooking on his own now at a very young age!
The biggest piece of advice I can give parents to help kids develop an appreciation for food is to teach them to grow food. Not things that you can buy readily and inexpensively at the supermarket (i.e. onions, carrots) but unusual, organic ingredients. When they grow it, they eat it, and it’s a great bonding exercise for the whole family to put down the gadgets, get out in the fresh air, and reconnect to the land and each other in the garden.