Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Birthday Menu

Last week, we celebrated another birthday in Dublin. No trip to Belgium this time, but I think we found a creative solution.

When celebrating traditional gifting events in our situation, the choice of gifts is narrowed down considerably. I have always been a fan of giving (and receiving) the practical gift- one that will actually be used. Nothing that will be looked at, fawned over, and set on a shelf or put in a box to be thrown away.

Unfortunately, the practical gifts are often not as fun, or are seen as not as thoughtful. A teddy bear is thoughtful, but the teddy bear is also practically useless. Flowers? Expensive, inedible, and are dead within a week. How did cut flowers ever symbolize long-lasting love? They are the opposite of long-lasting love. They are brilliant displays of hot, brief, meaningless plant sex- and soon wilt and die on the kitchen table. Flowers should be something you give to a casual fling partner, if the symbolism matches the reality.

A three pack of fresh new white undershirts? Now that's a gift someone can use. It will literally be on their person for hours every day, and will be used over and over again until it is worn thin and stained, at which point it can be cut up for rags or donated to a charity shop for further use elsewhere in the community.

Here in our small apartment, we suffer from even more limitations on practical gifting. We have very little space for new things. Our kitchen is small, so we don't have space for the new countertop labor-saver. My brewing operation is small by necessity. I don't know where I would put something like a grain mill, mash tun, or additional fermenting buckets.

Further complicating matters is our transient status here in Ireland. When Sara's placement is over, we don't know where we'll end up next. We might be somewhere in Ireland, somewhere in Europe, somewhere in the Americas, or Asia, Africa, or Oceania. When we move, we'll have to deal with all the stuff we've collected here in Ireland, so the less stuff we have, the easier that process will be.

The answer? Consumable gifts and gift experiences. Things we can do and experience without having some hard-copy space-eater to keep. For Sara's birthday, I decided to combine these into a consumable experience.

I wanted to make a special dinner for her, but couldn't think of any one dish to prepare. She enjoys almost any kind of food, so she just trusted me- dangerous. I was struggling to think of something when I stumbled upon the menu for our favorite Iowa City burger joint- Short's Burger and Shine. We loved visiting Short's on Clinton Street, an Iowa-themed gourmet burger bar and grill in a storefront originally built as a cobbler and shoe shine shop over one hundred years ago. Don't laugh, Europeans! 100 years is a long time in Midwest America.

They serve all Iowa-grown and Iowa-processed beef and beers from Iowa-based microbrews. The burgers are all named after real towns and counties in Iowa (Defiance, Lytton, Larchwood, Germantown...) I couldn't really do anything about the Iowa-grown ingredients, as I couldn't justify importing black market Iowa beef just for a burger, but it gave me a start. I clicked through the menu and started writing down ideas.

I thought I could make a burger bar based upon the Short's menu. Most of the ingredients for Short's burgers could be found or made here, and I could just give Sara her choice of burger. I could even make a menu!

As if that wasn't enough, I thought to put some of her favorites from other Iowa City restaurants on the menu if I could swing it. I decided on her favorite Buffalo chicken wrap from Atlas and the sandwich Loretta from Quentin's.

Now that I had the menu sketched out, I had to worry about the practical execution of the meal. I couldn't in good conscience buy and prepare ingredients for everything just to waste the food she didn't order. I had to carefully plan my purchases for foods that we could use, save, or freeze- and I had to keep the budget down. I was able to find most of the ingredients at Tesco, but had to go to Aldi for dill pickles- called gherkins here, and often only available sweet. The classic dill pickle is sour and not at all sweet, but the tastes here are for the sweet gherkins. I also wasn't able to find sauerkraut in either market. I don't know if I'm looking in the wrong place in Irish supermarkets, or if I have to go to a Polish market to find it.

The only request Sara did have for the meal was the old American standby, chocolate chip cookies. I had to substitute chocolate chunks for chips, as a bag of semisweet chips is bafflingly expensive here in the baking aisle, when a 100g bar of semi sweet chocolate (called plain chocolate) is 60 cents in the candy aisle. I found the classic Toll House recipe on the internet, and went into action early that afternoon.

Butter, Sugar, and Chocolate for cookies
Butter, Sugar, and Chocolate

Finishing Dough for cookies
Finishing Dough

Cookies Just Out of the Oven
Just Out of the Oven

To add some buffer time to my serving, I made soup and salad in the afternoon. When she came home, I would have everything prepped and could serve her drinks, soup, and salad while I quickly cooked and assembled her sandwich order- just like a real restaurant!

About an hour before she came home, I heated up some oil for some real, crispy, bona fide double fried French fries. No disrespect meant to the Irish and English chips, but we really miss the thin-cut and fried crisp fries of home.

Double-Fried Fries
Double-Fried Fries

When she came home, I handed her the menu, printed in a fancy font on creamy, thick paper. She ordered half a Buffalo chicken wrap and half a Loretta sandwich. I wasn't prepared for half-portions of anything, so she got a full sandwich and wrap, whether she wanted them or not!

I served up the beef and barley soup with the salad and fresh vinaigrette dressing while I frantically fried onions and green peppers for the Loretta and microwaved some hot sauce with butter to mix in with cooked the chicken breast pieces I had for the wrap.

The main courses were finished before she was finished with soup and salad, but we were out of plates, so I stole her plate and threw on the whole wrap and sandwich while I threw on a burger for myself. I had the Thornton burger with chorizo, mozzarella cheese, and avocado mayonnaise.

Loretta Sandwich
Loretta Sandwich

Thornton Burger
Thornton Burger

After dinner, we still had to have the dessert- those cookies. I had stacked them up in a mound on a plate with a handy hole right in the middle. It looked like the perfect place for a birthday candle, but we don't have any candles. A rare burst of genius hit me earlier when I envisioned a food safe candle facsimile with a celery stalk base, a paper clip wire wick, and an orange carrot flame. I know it looks like something from a dedicated professional Pinterester- but it was all Cory.

Cookie Cake and Candle
Cookie Cake and Candle

We had a great time, for not much more than the cost of our usual weekly grocery budget. The best news? We get to enjoy leftovers made with all the ingredients we didn't use on the birthday night. It's like we're celebrating the birthday for a full week!

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