Saturday, December 13, 2014

Christmas Gifts : Lovely Things

I'm one of those horribly organised people you all love to hate.  I start thinking about gifts in September, once my birthday is over, and I start squirrelling away stuff as I see.  I know that not everybody is as ridiculously disciplined about buying presents and for most people, half of the fun is going shopping, whether it's in the shops or online from the comfort of your desk at lunchtime or on the sofa in the evening.  I've compiled (if I was a hipster sort, I'd say "curated") a list of lovely things that you or somebody you love might really really like...

Fabulous Fragrance for Her: B. Balenciaga

I smelled this in October at a trade show (one of the nice parts of the day job) and I fell in love on the spot. The Balenciaga website has this to say : Inspired by the marriage of old and new, B.BALENCIAGA reflects back on the fashion house’s classic heritage in a modern way. The bottle’s frosted glass has a unique crackle texture, inspired by the marble tiling of Balenciaga’s original 10 Avenue George V Paris salon. The shape commands a six-sided architectural design, while the unique exposed arch of the cap pays homage to the arches found in Balenciaga fashion and accessories". Frankly, the bottle is very beautiful and I am in love with the fragrance which is "a green woody fragrance. Fresh and alluring, the fragrance opens with green notes of lily of the valley bell and violet green leaves accord. As B.BALENCIAGA evolves, the iris note reveals a powdery essence before drying down with darker woody notes of cashmeran woods". In fact, I opted for some self-gifting on Black Friday because I'm worth it.   The 50ml gift set is now on sale at House of Fraser for £60.35/€76.20

Fantastic Food for Them : Real Italian Foodies Hampers

Lorraine & Bruno own La Cucina in Limerick, created a range of superb pasta sauces and have no started a thriving mail order business selling their sauces and a range of delicious Italian food products.  They have a range of four Christmas gift hampers which are sure to please all the food lovers and prices start at just €35 (plus delivery of just €4.95 anywhere in Ireland) so you can treat the food lovers in your life to a very Eatalian Christmas.

Terrific Tableware for Them : Slated

Tara Hammond has a beautiful business turning slate into covetable homeware.  I already own her Blue Bangor tray from the Circa collection and I really love her latest tray which has brushed steel Italian designed handles and would be perfect for tapas in front of the tv or a luxurious breakfast in bed. An indulgent, but beautiful gift at €60

Stylish Shoes for Sir : The Shoebox Kilkenny

Paul O'Connor has a great shoe and accessories shop in Kilkenny City and recently branched out into mens shoes.  They're so lovely that I bought not one, but two pairs for The Hubs for his birthday.  For a man who only ever wears black shoes to transition to a pair of Justin Reece tan leather brogues with red detailing and laces, they have to be pretty special, and they are.  He doesn't have an online shop but call him at 056 7756111 or pay a visit to 6 Ormonde Street, Kilkenny.

Marvellous Meat for Many : James Whelan Beef Bonds

James Whelan Butchers are one of Ireland’s most successful butchers. From their own farm in Co. Tipperary, they supply meat for their shop in Clonmel and the highly acclaimed James Whelan Butchers in the Avoca Food Markets in Monkstown, Rathcoole & Kilmacanogue. Their Beef Bonds are a great idea for meat lovers because you buy a share in one of their cattle and you will receive 5lbs selection of Roast Joints, 3lbs selection of Steak Cuts, 3lbs selection of Braise/Slow Cook Cuts, 2lbs of a selection of Steak Mince & Steak Burgers. Selection of Offal, some marrow bones and some great stock bones from €100. That's a lot of meat for your money.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Christmas Gifts : Books for Cooks

With two weeks to go until the big day, there's still time to get presents for your loved ones.  If they're like me and fond of a cookbook or two, might I make some recommendations?  Here's five of my favourites and I think they're perfect books for cooks.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Sponsored Video : Magic & Sparkle at your M&S

As the song goes, it's the most wonderful time of the year.  It's time for spending time with loved ones, giving and receiving gifts and eating a substantial quantity of food with lots of bubbles to wash it down with.  And where can you find practically everything that you'll need for a Christmas with lots of Magic & Sparkle?  That's right, at your local M&S.  Founded in 1884 by Howard Marks and Thomas Spencer, the first store opened in Leeds as Marks' Penny Bazaar.  95 years later, the first non-UK branch of M&S opened on Mary Street in Dublin 1 in 1979 and you can now find branches in 54 countries across the world, including Lebanon, China and India.  It's a long way from Leeds.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review : Dinner by Domini Kemp

Domini Kemp is a bit of a powerhouse, not only is she the co-owner of the itsa chain, Hatch & Sons, Alchemy Juices & Joe's Coffee Shop with her sister Peaches, she trained as a chef in Leiths in London, has already written two cookery books, broadcasts on food on RTE Radio 1 and has a weekly cookery column in the Irish Times.  Column is a bit of an understatement actually, it's a double page full colour spread.  If you want something done, ask a busy lady (obviously).

Dinner is a collection of Domini's most popular dinner recipes since she began writing the column in 2008 and it is a powerhouse of a book.  When I opened it in the office, it was snatched out of my hands by the ladies in design.  They love a beautifully bound and well illustrated book and Dinner ticked all of the boxes for them.  It's another Graham Thew masterpiece and so simply laid out but being very beautiful at the same time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Raspberry Coconut Layer Cake

After our dinner at MacNean Restaurant in Cavan, we decided to take the long way home via Enniskillen. The lure of Lakeland always proves too much for me and I am powerless to resist.  It's a bit like Sephora, but full of cookware instead of cosmetics.  Poor Hubs just sighs and plots revenge, usually involving a record store.  This time around I discovered some new flavourings and purchased a bottle each of raspberry and coconut, two flavours which are relatively hard to find.  And they were on special, so I saved money.  Practically free in my convoluted way of justifying purchases...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review : Dinner at MacNean House

I've heard many good things about MacNean House in Blacklion, Co. Cavan. Owned and operated by well known Irish chef Neven Maguire, it's tucked away in the farthest corners of Co. Cavan and quite a drive from Dublin for dinner. Despite the remote location, it's permanently busy with weekend reservations snapped up many months in advance.  At this stage, I must confess that I'm not a fan of MacNean's reservation policy.  It's all by phone, no modern email or online reservation system here.  The phone lines opened for business on a Monday in March and if you couldn't get through, then you didn't get a table.  Some may consider this throwback to an old system charming, I found it to be incredibly customer unfriendly.  For starters, I was in a meeting all day Monday with clients. I could hardly tell them that it was more important to sit with my phone permanently on redial in the hope I'd get through.  So, I finally got to make a call at 5pm, only to end up on hold for 45 minutes before eventually speaking to one of the lovely ladies who have the unenviable task of manning the phones and listening to a a lot of frustrated people.  Surely this antiquated system can be updated?

Frustrations over, our table was booked for the 6pm sitting on a Saturday evening which was to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary (I was 16 when we married, you do believe me, don't you?) and we arrived on the dot of 6pm, after a delayed flight, a mad dash from the airport and the fastest change ever in the B&B next door from crumpled mess to classy ensemble.  We were escorted into an elegant long dining room with cream wallpaper on top of grey painted panelling filled with spacious linen draped tables and tweed upholstered chairs.

The dinner menu is €72 per person, with a prestige menu available for the entire table at €87 (€132 including wine) if you really want to treat yourself. Dinner began with canapés, to accompany a glass of rose prosecco (€11). A dark wooden tray held a yuzu salmon meringue. mascarpone shortbread, curried popcorn and spiced nuts. The bright flavour of the yuzu was zingy against the silky smoked salmon and the shortbread melted away.  I need a constant supply of the popcorn and nuts as it is the most perfect tv snack ever invented.  

Breads next : tomato twist, cranberry soda, onion focaccia and a pizza bread with truffled butter. The tiny pieces of each that I sampled were all excellent.  I was, you see, pacing myself for the rest of the evening.  It began with an amuse bouche of sweet potato and pumpkin mousse with a chicken lollipop was silky and light with deep flavours from the chicken to balance the sweetness of the mousse.

My starter of quail was pretty with foie rhubarb gel, lemon powder and egg. The barbequed quail was the winner here, with echoes of subtle smoke but I found the Parma ham slightly too tangy for the terrine.  His Ryefield Goats Cheese came as part of a light salad with leaves, walnut puree, beetroot gel and pickled vegetables.

Lobster next, in two parts. The tortellini with Thai sauce was fragrant and the fusion of flavours worked very well.  Not so much with the smoked lobster which reminded me of a chlorine filled swimming pool from my childhood but the mango element was lovely. The spring roll was slightly overwhelmed by all the wrapper.  His ravioli of Fermanagh chicken was a very pretty sight with edible flowers, micro greens and a light sauce.

The sorbet was a much needed palate cleanser : macerated pineapple, mango & passion fruit with yoghurt flakes. Sweet, tangy and refreshing, it was time for the main event.

My halibut with mushroom consommé sat on some perfectly turned baby vegetables and a red wine fregola with gnocchi which were potatoey and pillowy. Apparently this was a brand new dish and I hope it stays.  I had an inch thick tranche of very fresh fish which was crisp outside and succulent within.  The consomme brought intense earthy mushroom as a grounding point. Fish purists would call it overdone but it was on the right side of cooked for me.  His dry aged beef striploin arrived in two symmetrical pieces, with braised beef cheek, creamed spinach and rosti.  This was a dish for meat lovers and he was delighted, begrudgingly sharing slivers of the striploin and the cheek with me.  I loved the braised baby onions on the side, knowing what a faff they are to prepare and loving them all the more because of it.  Side dishes of sautéed potato, tenderstem broccoli, runner beans, carrot & courgette were well seasoned but pretty much redundant as we were full without them.

At this point, I must mention that the floor staff were beautifully trained.  The service was smooth and skilled but also friendly - a difficult task but very accomplished here. The pace of service filled the three hour window seamlessly, at no stage did we feel hurried or rushed despite another sitting at 9.30pm.  The sommelier had trained as a chef in MacNean before changing career and her knowledge of the menu and the wines was unparallelled.

Soon, our pre dessert of ginger creme brûlée and mixed berry tiramisu served on Irish slate from my friend Tara Hammond.. I would have been happy to have the creme brûlée as my main dessert as it was warm with gingery heat, packed full of vanilla seeds and had the most perfect crisp top to shatter with a little spoon. He preferred the tiramisu, not being a lover of ginger. His loss.

Finally, time for dessert.  Mine was the Peanut Sensation: peanut parfait, caramel mousse and milk ice cream. With a jug of molten chocolate to pour over and dissolve the shell.  It was exquisite.  As was his assiette of Clarke's strawberries.  I stole his cannelloni and he promptly retaliated by liberating the rest of my dessert.

Did I mention the extra post-dessert dessert?  A beautiful miniature cake on a long white plate to celebrate our wedding anniversary.  I'm assured that it was an excellent treat.  I had admitted defeat by that stage, being utterly replete with food and a very good half bottle of Portuguese Provia Regia Arinto (€17.50). MacNean thought otherwise and an assortment of petit fours arrived as a final temptation.  

Our bill for three hours of sublime food, superb service and a great celebratory experience was €186.50 excluding service.  Yes, it is on the high side, but it was a very special occasion and we felt that it was exceptional value for money. 

Blacklion, Co.Cavan
Tel :+353 71 985 3022

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Baby Beetroot and Hot Smoked Salmon Salad

A few months ago, a very well known company who sell pickled vegetables came to me and asked me to create a recipe using their beetroot.  When I mentioned this to The Hubs, he pulled a face and muttered "who eats that stuff".  Well, me for a start.  When I was a kid, a salad wasn't complete without some crinkle cut beetroot, pickled cauliflower and onions and perhaps the odd gherkin if I was really lucky.  I loved how the beetroot vinegar would stain the salad cream and the vegetable salad bright pink.  Mum wasn't as impressed if I managed to get it all over my clothes though...

Monday, October 27, 2014

October Roundup

This month, I decided that sharing was definitely caring.  To be honest, after two weeks of holiday where I ate, drank and was very merry, I needed to share out the tasting duties.  My lovely work colleagues rose to the challenge admirably and munched their way through many delicious things, so I wouldn't have to bring them home.  They're so kind.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Halloween Treats : Scary Pumpkinhead Carrot Cake

"I hate carrots but I love carrot cake".  Another gem from the Little Brother who was the happy recipient of this special scary Halloween cake.  I was browsing around TK Maxx last week, purely to help The Hubs buy a new wallet.  It's never that simple - I walked out with a set of Essie nail polish and a new pumpkin head cake tin.  I know, I'm a sucker...  Then, what cake to make?  With the changing weather from lovely to "holy moly, stick the electric blanket on", I reckoned a more substantial warming sponge would work best.  Add some spooky gel icing and you're all set for a Scary Pumpkinhead Carrot Cake.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Triple B Muffins

Muffins.  They didn't exist when I was a kid - the most glamorous thing we ever made was butterfly buns.  And I can assure you that buttercream was most definitely made with margarine then.  I'm still shuddering at the memory of margarinecream gritty with granulated sugar because icing sugar wasn't a staple ingredient, the way it is now.  If you're curious, a butterfly bun was a standard fairy cake (called a bun in the country to this very day) with the top lopped off to create a flat surface.  A splodge of gritty margarine buttercream and a dab of jam, usually strawberry, were spread onto the flat surface.  Then the leftover cake top was cut in half and placed back at angles on top of the jam and cream to create a sort of butterfly effect.  And there were no fancy paper cases either.  Just like Henry Ford, cake cases came in one colour only - white.  Take it or leave it.  Kids nowadays have no idea of the trauma we went through!