Friday, 30 January 2009

The Three Chimneys in Skye

A while back, in September, the Monkey and I went on a trip to the beautiful isle of Skye. We walked in the Fairy Glen, climbed the Old Man of Storr, had a peek at Dunvegan Castle, played Scrabble and generally just chilled out. It was utter bliss. And the weather even behaved for a few days, giving us glorious sunshine and only a tiny bit of rain and mist over the three days. We felt blessed indeed, not least because our mode of transport for the weekend was Hamish, a blue VW campervan hired for us by lovely friends as a wedding present.

As this trip ended up being a belated celebration of our first wedding anniversary, we decided to treat ourselves with a dinner at The Three Chimneys, certainly the most famous restaurant in Skye, one of the most famous in Scotland and even the world. To my astonishment, it has never won a Michelin star - perhaps due to its remoter than remote location, who knows. But it's a wonderful place - cosy, welcoming, utterly lacking in pretension, and although undeniably pricey, for a special occasion it feels worth every penny.

We ate:

Warm Colbost crab tart with mixed cress and woodland sorrel butter
Seared breast of wood pigeon with celeriac remoulade, Ayrshire bacon and an Edinbane blaeberry jus
Pan-fried Mallaig hake, skate and Sconser scallop with Anna potatoes, braised Puy lentils, Glengarry chanterelles and Orbost parsley sauce
A quaich of dark chocolate with warm madeleines and vanilla ice cream
Marinated fresh pineapple with lime and chilli, passionfruit jelly, coconut ice cream, rosemary sorbet and cardamom biscuit
Coffee and Chimneys sweeties

And then we rolled down the hill back to our illicitly parked campervan to dream sweet, tipsy dreams and listen to the waves lap the shores of Loch Dunvegan just a pebble's skip away. Bliss.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Top 5 Breakfasts - home style

Ah, breakfast, the most important meal of the day. Funny to think that for years I rebelled against that notion, never wanting to eat in the morning, making do with a cup of tea and at best an oatcake on my way to work. No wonder I always felt sluggish in the mornings and starving by 11 o'clock! I can't remember the exact moment I fell in love with the breakfast concept, but it was definitely after I moved to London and started going out for breakfast more often. In our house of a weekend we would attempt to recreate the fantastic breakfast stacks from our beloved local Cafe Goya (now sadly no more), their onion-enhanced baked beans and English muffins being particular highlights. These days I'd be lying if I said I had time for much in the way of brekkie during the week (a piece of toast or some cereal does the trick) but the weekends would be so much duller if I didn't have one of these beauties to look forward to, complete with a pot of Earl Grey tea, maybe a Virgin Mary and the travel supplement of the paper. These then, very definitely in order, are my Top 5 home-style breakfasts:

1. Scrambled eggs & smoked salmon on Paul Rankin soda bread
Slightly sloppy eggs (never with milk added), strips of Scottish smoked salmon on buttered soda bread. Paul Rankin's is the absolute best. Serve with lots of green Tabasco sauce.

2. Fruit salad, yogurt, honey & Grape Nuts
A nod to our friend Rach for introducing us to this super-healthy start to the day. Only soft fruits in the salad - summer berries are best, but also kiwi, orange, maybe banana. Served with a dollop of plain yogurt, a squirt of honey and a sprinkle of Grape Nuts.

3. The full cooked veggie
Cauldron sausages, grilled tomato, scrambled or poached eggs, fried mushrooms, oniony baked beans, alongside toast and, of course, green Tabasco. The perfect Sunday brunch.

4. Porridge with jam
How bizarre to think that a good Scots girl like me should have her first encounter with porridge on Castaway Island in Fiji at the age of 27. Now I can't imagine living without the stuff, so versatile is it as a breakfast dish. I've cooked it at home, in campervans and over camp fires, all in the same half-water, half-milk method, with a pinch of salt and sugar, and served while still a bit sloppy with a big dollop of raspberry jam. Healthy, easy and yummy.

5. Birchermuesli
Slightly disingenuous, this one, as I've never actually made birchermuesli at home. But I plan to! In Switzerland it is eaten all the time, for lunch as well as breakfast, and it will forever remind me of the year I spent living in Lausanne. The muesli is soaked overnight in milk or apple juice, then grated apple and more milk are added, making it soft and smooth without cooking. Served with fresh fruit it becomes a wholesome breakfast treat.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Dal Makhani

When I first made this dish I declared it to be the best thing I'd ever cooked - an overstatement, perhaps, but certainly an indication of how deliciously moreish it was straight out of the pan. Creamy, comforting and with just enough spice to warm but not burn, it goes perfectly with some rice, poppadoms and mango chutney. It's another Ballymaloe creation, and so so easy to prepare (provided you have a supply of muslin on hand to construct a bouquet garni. My top-cheat tip: the foot of a pair of (clean) tights works just as well!)

Unlike a lot of Indian food, I found this doesn't stand up to second-day munching, so best to make just enough of to feed people on the night - plus a good bit extra for chef's tasting rights, of course...

Dal Makhani (Spiced Lentils and Kidney beans)
Serves 4

6 cardamom pods, 3 bay leaves, 2 cloves garlic, small piece of peeled fresh ginger, 2tsp coriander seeds, 1 cinnamon stick - all tied up in muslin to create a spice bag like a bouqet garni
175g Puy or green lentils
75g tinned kidney beans
1 onion, finely sliced
2 tbsp cream
25g butter

25g butter
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded and chopped
1 green chilli, chopped

1. Put lentils, onion and spice bag in a deep saucepan with double their volume of water and bring to the boil. Simmer for about an hour until soft but not mushy, adding more water if necessary.
2. When the lentils are soft, stir in the butter, kidney beans and half the cream .
3. Make the dressing by melting the butter in a small frying pan and frying the cumin seeds and garlic until the spices start to colour. Add the onion and fry for a few more minutes, then add the tomatoes and chilli. Simmer for 1-2 minutes.
4. Combine the dressing with the pulses and the remaining cream. Season to taste.

I can't wait to make this again.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Ballymaloe's Spiced Chickpea Soup

Every time I visit my friend Kate in Dublin I spend a good portion of my time poring over her copy of the Ballymaloe Cookery Course. Not that she's boring or bad company, and not because I'm trying to avoid talking to her - quite the contrary - it's just such a beautiful and interesting book that I find it hard to tear myself away. It even makes great bedtime reading, fuelling my dreams with images of briny oysters, pretty salads and perfect biscuits. It's an inspiring read, and the cook school that bears its name is firmly on my list of foodie places to visit one day - along with El Bulli, The French Laundry, The Fat Duck ... the list, predictably, goes on and on.

It is probably one of my favourite cookery books of all time, which is why I was so delighted to be given a copy of it as a birthday gift by my lovely friend Kay, and why I was so impatient to get into the kitchen and get cooking. Here's what I decided upon first...

Spiced Chickpea Soup with Coriander Cream & Pitta Crisps
Serves 6

2 cans chickpeas, drained
800ml vegetable stock
3 tsps coriander seeds
3 tsps cumin seeds
50g butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 small red chillies, deseeded and chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric
75ml cream
salt and ground pepper
freshly squeezed lemon juice

1. Dry-roast cumin and coriander seeds over medium heat for 2-3 mins, then crush in pestle & mortar or spice grinder.
2. Melt butter in a saucepan, then fry the onion, chillies, garlic and spices gently for 4-5 mins. Add the turmeric and cook for another minute.
3. Remove from the heat, add the chickpeas and mix well. Season.
4. Add the stock and cream, and liquidise all together until smooth.
5. Gently heat the soup, then sharpen with lemon juice and serve with chopped coriander leaves, a swirl of cream and some toasted pitta pieces.

Smooth, creamy, warm with spices, this is like a pureed channa masala - a delight.

Friday, 16 January 2009

A Spanish-inspired Feast

The Monkey and I spent New Year in Barcelona this year, visiting friends, aimlessly wandering the backstreets, drinking in art, cava and, of course, eating a vast array of foods - tapas, pintxos, the freshest of seafood, and rustic feasts to soak up the excess booze. A particular highlight was strolling through the tightly packed alleys of La Boqueria, Barcelona's most famous food market. Pigs' heads, live lobsters, long strings of russet-coloured sausages, mounds of alluring cheeses - all the best of Spanish produce is on display here, and if we had more room in our suitcase (and, realistically, if the Euro hadn't been quite so strong) we would have bought an awful lot more. In the end we contented ourselves with a few circuits of the market before settling in for a couple of cervezas at a nearby tapas bar.

It was a glorious few days - somehow relaxing and adventurous at the same time, thanks in no small part to our great friends who welcomed us, introduced us to their friends and, perhaps most importantly, showed us some of their secret food spots. We came home laden with goodies purchased at La Boqueria and elsewhere, and decided to have a little fiesta at home in honour of my brother's 30th birthday, and to remind us of a wonderful holiday.


Frutos secos - roasted almonds, roasted salted broad beans
Jamon 'pata negra' (from black-footed pigs) - served just as it is
Pan con Tomate - DIY style
Gambas a la Plancha - grilled shell-on prawns in garlic
Pintxos of boquerones (anchovies) on rustic bread with tapenade
Tortilla - just plain, with potatoes, onion and garlic
Chorizo, roasted and garnished with chopped parsley
Patatas bravas with spicy mayo
Green salad with avocado
Cheese - Tetilla from Galicia, Manchego from Catalunya
A couple of bottles of good cava and some rough Spanish red wine

From Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares to Hippo's Birthday Dreams

I'd been itching to visit Abstract for a while, jealous of the fact that my husband, who we'll call The Monkey, had been without me ('for work') some years ago now. But wish hard enough and good things happen - and sure enough, this fantastically quirky restaurant was the chosen venue for my birthday dinner this year. With its mirrored columns, black snakeskin-effect tables and bold prints on the wall, the decor could be garish in other rooms but here they somehow get away with it. It's fun. The service is charming, high class without being stiff and obsequious. The 25-page wine list is a hefty tome, but some helpful sommelier's suggestions at the front make selecting a 2007 Pouilly Fume child's play. And the food? Simply delicious. I think the menu speaks for itself, so I'll just copy it here and let your imagination do the rest ...

canapes of gravalax on mini pastry puff and tuna sushi with a tiny hint of wasabi
amuse bouche of instense artichoke foam with shaved truffle
Yellow Fin Tuna Sashimi, Wasabi Ice Cream, Pickled Vegetables, shiso Cress & Cucumber Caviar
Wild Sea Bass, Pan Fried Fillet, Crab Cannelloni, Star Anise, Carrot Juice & Emulsion
pre-dessert of chocolate & mango tiramisu
Artisanal Farmhouse Cheeses with Crackers, Grapes, Celery, Chutney and Tawny Port

That Michelin star is surely on its way soon. What a wonderful birthday treat.

Welcome to the world, Hungriest Hippo!

Well, as my 32nd birthday celebrations wind down, it seems fitting that this day should also see the birth of my foodie blog, something I've been impatient to try for a while now. Since my whole life seems to be dominated by food – in a wholesome, not-at-all worrying way, of course – a blog seems like the most natural progression of a lifelong obsession. Not for nothing, it seems, were Baking and Cooking the only two badges I managed to acquire over two years in the Girl Guides. Years later, as a restaurant reviewer, food-and-drink editor and enthusiastic dinner-party hostess, I spend most of my waking hours thinking about food. And a lot of my sleeping ones too.

And so, even if I'm the only person who ever looks at this, I don't mind. It just seems like a fun idea to have my food creations (well, perhaps only the successful ones) recorded for me to look back on as the months - and hopefully years - slip by. Perhaps I'll throw in some restaurant reviews and photos too. Perhaps I'll meet some like-minded souls along the way. Perhaps I'll get very fat through the whole process – who knows. Let's just hope it's fun.

Bon appetit!