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Food brings people together, and there’s no better evidence of this than the daily lunchtime meal at my office. I’m very lucky to work at a company that provides its employees tasty, inexpensive and healthy food for lunch every day, prepared for us by a staff of dedicated chefs. There is a different menu every day, each featuring a hot main course (always with a vegetarian alternative) and side dishes as well as a daily salad bar with plenty of variety.

Last week the Q Café at Kellogg’s featured some very special menus, one that I had a hand in creating. It was the much-anticipated Come Dine With Me competition: a representative from each department was chosen to create a full meal menu (starter, main course, dessert) with recipes, which the canteen cooks would make for the entire staff at our Kellogg’s European headquarters. I was putting my best recipe skills forward on behalf of the Marketing department. No pressure, right?

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Of course there was a kicker to the normal CDWM rules: We were each given a star ingredient that we had to feature in our main dish, and I – ever the unlucky one – drew FISH. I say unlucky because, in my experience, a lot of Irish people don’t like fish unless it’s battered and fried, and our kitchen doesn’t use a deep fat fryer. The others received relatively tame main-dish ingredients: Jenny (Nutrition) got chicken; Joe (Sales/Procurement) got beef; Diarmuid (Supply Chain) got ham/bacon and Ruanne (HR) had to feature pork in her main course.

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Someone recently asked me how I have found the first year of marriage. When this question is posed to newlyweds, I think the answer varies wildly depending on who you ask; some will speak of an extended honeymoon that just seems to keep on going while others will express surprise at how it wasn’t what he/she expected it to be (this could be good or bad, depending on the cause(s) of the surprise. Of course there are a million other answers in between.

For me, the first year of marriage to Mountaineering Man has continued to solidify the bond that was initiated on our first date just over three years ago. I’ve always wanted a partner in life, someone who truly accepts me – wobbly bits and all – and who shares similar values but also inspires new perspective and change. Someone I feel secure with; a person who can stand his ground but also considers there’s a different way to look at something.

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Our first year hasn’t been easy; as you read in my previous post, his mother is unwell and we’ve spent a number of weekends staying with his family who live two hours away. We’re always rushing to get basic chores done like cleaning the house (which we get to every few weeks these days!) and the worry of the situation has led to many sleepless nights – insomnia is rampant in our house lately! Some days we’re like two grumpy toddlers who desperately need a nap, but instead of throwing ourselves on the ground in a heap of tears we’ll snap at each other and slam a few doors to make a point (ahem, that would be more me than MM, I must admit).

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When I first moved to Ireland in March 2010, I only knew a handful of people. Because I was working from home and living in the (new-to-me) town of Drogheda, I turned to food blogging as a way to pass my free time and to make new friends.

Roseanne was one of my very first food blogging friends, and since she lived not too far from me I invited her to my house for dinner one night along with a few other bloggers I’d met online. Since then we’ve become good friends, going on double dates with our respective hubbies (usually at L Mulligans or Eastern Seaboard – two of our faves), meeting up at blog events or just chilling out and having a good gossip session over tea and cakes.

The last time I was at Roseanne’s place, she showed me the print-outs of her book pages and we reviewed them together whilst stuffing our gobs with her famous pavlova. If you read her blog, you know Roseanne’s obsession with pavlova; she makes one nearly every week for her [very lucky or long-suffering, depending on which one of them you ask!] husband, J.

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You can find the recipe for this incredible dessert – the perfect combination of crunchy/chewy meringue topped with beautiful heavy cream and a truckload of fresh fruit – in her newly released book Like Mam Used to Bake. The book is full of mouthwatering treats like Caramel Macaroons, Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie, Coconut Cake and so much more (there are even some bread recipes in there like Farmhouse Rolls and Wholemeal Soda Bread).

To celebrate the launch of the book, I have one signed copy to give away. Just name your favourite dessert and why you love it so much in the comments section below, and on Friday morning I’ll do a random draw for the winner. Best of luck to everyone – and congratulations to Roseanne on this incredibly impressive accomplishment!

Competition open to anyone in the island of Ireland!

*Photo of pavlova from LikeMamUsedToBake.com

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It seems that in every second blog post of late, I promise to blog more often. These days I just can’t seem get a handle on my writing schedule so I’ll omit the usual promise and simply do the best I can to post more frequently.

The last few months have been tough for Mountaineering Man and me; his mother is ill and we’re spending every weekend at his parents’ home, which is about two hours away from Dublin. In order to protect the family’s privacy I won’t go into too much detail here, but suffice to say the illness came rather suddenly. It has been an incredibly difficult time for the whole family.

But even during this dark time, there are a few glimmers of light. It’s nice to spend some quality time with the family, who before this we’d see every third or fourth week. It’s  been a real treat to see my little one-and-a-half-year-old niece, who – totally unbeknownst to her – has been our comic relief and welcome distraction with her funny antics and ever-developing personality.

IMG_0284[1]I feel lucky to be able to see her every weekend, and am grateful that she is getting to know me too. She is a smart little girl, always up for a dance (last weekend her daddy put on some serious  ‘70s disco music and away she went!) and loves for us to read to her from her many books. Mind you, we don’t always agree; she loves her mom’s old Judy doll, which regularly scares the crap out of me with her blank-yet-piercing stare -  she reminds me too much of the Talking Tina doll from the Twilight Zone. And since my niece leaves her all around the house, Judy seems to pop up at every turn (particularly in my nightmares).

We also have at least one dinner with MM’s dad, sister and her family every weekend, sometimes two if we don’t have to rush back to Dublin for work. I’ve become the cook along with my brother-in-law; he’s the fry-up expert and will make the mid-day eggs, sausages, rashers, potato waffle, beans and tomato plate for anyone who is hungry. It looks so tempting I think I’m going to have to ask him to do one up for me next weekend. I usually cook the Saturday dinners and Sunday lunches, and despite my father-in-law’s protests that it’s too much work,  I genuinely enjoy it.

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Val

As promised, I closed the competition at midnight last night and did a Vine video of me selecting the winner. There were 68 comments in total (made complicated by the fact that my blog template counts “newer” and “older” comments and splits them up: 1-18, then 1-50. So I had to reconfigure them to be numbered 1-68, and then put that figure into a random number generator. The first winner wasn’t qualified (she’s based in the U.S.) so I did a second draw and the winner is….VAL!

Congratulations – you will receive your beautiful new stand mixer in the next two weeks! Thanks for everyone who entered – I loved all the comments, what memories!

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If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you know that in the last few months I’ve really gotten into making my own bread. The seed was sown last year when I became addicted to the Great British Bakeoff, and was nurtured by a steady diet of Paul Hollywood’s Bread episodes and various River Cottage shows, which frequently sees the curly mopped-topped Hugh Fearnly Whittingstall whipping up batches of fresh baked breads and cakes.

There’s just something so satisfying about the process of making your own bread: the mixing, the kneading, proofing and of course watching the pale ball of dough transform into a golden, crusty loaf. That said, I have found it difficult to find the time to bake bread regularly and up until now it’s been an every-second-weekend hobby. Mixing the dough by hand means making a goopy mess of the bowl and your fingers, and the kneading process requires a clean worktop (meaning you need to sanitise it first!), 10-12 minutes of pushing and pulling the dough and then of course the clean-up afterward.

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Sometimes during this laborious process, I’ll think of my beloved stand mixer, which is still sitting in a dark storage space in my hometown of Los Angeles. Put simply, when it comes to breads and cakes (and a million other edibles), it does the work for you and makes it easy to have homemade baked goods without having to schedule a chunk of time in your diary.

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a papa

My father, for all intents and purposes, is a Renaissance man. He can build almost anything;  he handcrafted the wooden and rice paper shoji screen doors in their house, built my mother a pair of wooden lamps identical to ones she saw at a shop and has designed and put together a few bookshelves over the years. He writes occasionally as a hobby, has taken classes in pottery and stained-glass making and is currently doing a Spanish language course with my mom.

And on top of all that, he can cook – like a pro.

We were lucky to be raised in a household where both parents cooked. When we were kids, my father managed most weekday meals as my mother worked later than he did. He made some really wonderful meals – some simple and some more elaborate – and in the process showed my sister and I how to do things like slice a tomato without cutting off a finger (carefully make slits at the slice points with the tip of your knife, and then slice into those slits). It never occurred to me back then that it was unusual to have a father who could cook as well my mother.

IMG_3371[2]In Ireland, it still seems to be an unusual thing that a man can cook something beyond a steak on the grill or a fry-up. I say this because of the reactions I’ve received when talking about Mountaineering Man’s recent interest and progress in cooking. It’s not necessarily a negative reaction, more surprise, confusion and disbelief all rolled into one. A handful of more conservative-leaning folk have expressed something more along the lines of disdain – which is odd. It’s sad to say but there’s still a percentage of people in this country who’d argue that a real man shouldn’t be interested in anything beyond sport and drink, which is an absolute fallacy. It’s also a stereotype that puts unnecessary pressure on Irish men to fit into an old idea which, to me, has no place in modern society.

Frankly, I’m thrilled that MM has taken a liking to the kitchen – a place he rarely ventured into before we met. I think his typical meal when we first started dating consisted of an overcooked chicken breast mixed with some variety of Uncle Ben’s sauce poured over boil-in-a-bag rice. Not bad, but not the most inspiring of meals (to cook OR eat!).

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Thanks to my obsession interest in cooking and to a few outside influences, MM is starting to craft some pretty serious meals. His most recent quest of making hand-made pasta has developed into a weekend hobby for us both, and a couple of weeks ago he surprised me by purchasing an Imperia pasta roller so we can hone our new-found skills together. I should note that the outside influences in this case come in the form of Two Greedy ItaliansAntonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo – who, through their highly engaging and beautifully-produced BBC series have schooled MM in the delights of fresh, simple, Italian food.

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We recently put the new Imperia to the test and made a so-so batch of tagliatelle; it was good but in our haste we forgot a couple of important steps and the result was a very soft pasta. We took what we learned and applied it to our next pasta project: homemade ravioli. I made the filling using a few leftovers we had around and MM made the dough. We both worked together (rolling pasta really is a two person job!) and the result was a beautifully delicious ravioli dish that would’ve been suitable for guests (not that we wanted to share – it was that good!).

The naysayers can keep their outdated, stereotypical Irish men. I prefer my [Irish] Renaissance Man.

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Beetroot Greens & Sweet Potato Ravioli

Ravioli dough – we used the Pasta Fresca recipe from the Two Greedy Italians cookbook; here is another fresh pasta recipe from them that’s available online that may work as well.

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely

1 medium onion, chopped finely

1 small red chilli, de-seeded and chopped finely

1 bunch of beetroot tops (greens) – about 10 large leaves – chopped roughly

1 medium sweet potato, baked, cooled and with skin removed

100 grams fresh goat’s cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Basic tomato pasta sauce (make yourself or use a jar of your favourite)

In a large sauté pan, heat up the olive oil over medium heat. Add in the garlic and onion and chilli and cook until softened – about 5 minutes. Add in the beetroot tops and cook for another 3-4 minutes, or until the greens are wilted down. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.

In a large bowl, mash the sweet potato. Add in the beetroot greens mixture and combine. Then crumble in the goat’s cheese and mix well. The mixture should bind naturally with the goat’s cheese and sweet potato so there’s no need for an egg. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Roll the pasta dough into sheets – we used our Imperia pasta roller and this made a total of 4 very long sheets, which we then cut into two to equal 8 total sheets. The way we made the ravioli was to lay down one sheet on a well-floured surface, and then using a tiny ice cream scoop we scooped the filling and placed it into two rows on the one sheet of pasta. We then brushed the crease points on that first pasta sheet with water, and then placed the second sheet over the first and pressed down around the fillings. We cut the squares using a pizza cutter and then with a fork made the indentations to seal the pasta.

Drop into boiling salted water and let cook for 3 minutes. The raviloi should float to the top when ready.

Serve with a simple tomato sauce or just a drizzle of browned butter and some fresh sage leaves – it’s really up to you!

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A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.Steve Martin

For the better part of the three-and-a-half years I’ve been here in Ireland, it’s been night. The previous two summers have been, at best, a mix of muggy mist, fluorescent-white clouds and a few fleeting rays of sunshine. During that first year in Drogheda I had a total of one al fresco meal, which was cut short by a sudden downpour. When I went home last year and visited my hairdresser, his first reaction was, “Your hair is SO dark!” I hadn’t coloured it, it was darker simply from a lack of sunshine…a bit like my soul!

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This summer has been a completely different experience all together. We’ve had long stretches of sunny days and – quell surprise – warm nights. I can’t remember ever being able to step outside after 8 PM in just a t-shirt here, but in the last several weeks I’ve donned short sleeves outdoors in the evening more than a few times. Mountaineering Man and I have been sleeping on top of the duvet for the last month or so, and we’re both sporting tans – REAL tans (not that either of us would ever get fake tan, sorry but I haven’t bought into that Irish obsession nor will I ever!).

We’ve even gotten out for a couple of picnics and barefoot walks on the beach, which I realise for my friends in LA is typical summer behaviour but for us is a real treat. That said we’re also experiencing the downside of having warm weather in a country that is not at all prepared for it; neither of our cars has air conditioning (it’s not a standard feature here). The other day I experienced that brain-melting, so-hot-you-can-almost-see-the-heatwaves moment after getting into my car, which had been parked out in the sun all day. I couldn’t open my windows fast enough.

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For the first year I lived in Ireland, I mainly worked from home. While I loved the freedom (making my own schedule, staying in my PJs, etc.) it wasn’t the best way to socialise myself in a new country.

Though I had a small group of friends in Drogheda (where I lived back when I first came here), I was starting to feel pretty lonely working at my dining room table most days with little to no interaction with other human beings. It was so depressing that at one point, I was putting on makeup and getting excited about a trip to Tesco for milk and eggs. At least I could talk to someone, even if the interaction was limited to a 3-minute chat with the check-out lady.

After relocating to Dublin and moving in with Mountaineering Man, I took a job at a digital creative agency in town. As with most agencies, the hours were long which meant that I spent more time with my 50-odd colleagues than I did with MM or anyone else in my personal life.

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The people who really became my family there was my workgroup – the Social Media team. There were four of us for most of my time there and I was the only female in the bunch. We were a scrappy lot, and I mean that in the best way. Philip – a long-haired thrash metal rocker with a sharp wit and a thick Northern accent – welcomed me into the fold with a typed-up list of recommendations and advice. “Don’t ever, EVER eat at the Bridge Café,” he wrote, referring to the greasy spoon deli and one of the only choices for food near the office.

To this day, I’ve never eaten there – despite the fact that Philip has gone against his own advice and eats there almost DAILY now (“I was wrong about it!” he claims, though I attribute his change of heart to sheer desperation thanks to a lack of decent eateries in the Ringsend area). Philip is the master of the hilarious yet thought-provoking quip (“Some day soon, somebody is going to print a 3D printer on a 3D printer and the universe is going to implode”) – and so-bad-they’re-good jokes.

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I imagine like many people in this world, I have always dreamed of going to Paris. The outdoor cafes, the croissants, the well-dressed Parisians – as an American who grew up Los Angeles, my notions of Paris were firmly rooted in Hollywood storylines and picture postcards of the French capital.

Last weekend I finally made it there, and it was everything I dreamt of and more. It was also the first visit for Mountaineering Man so rather than try to cover the list of popular attractions we opted for a real local’s experience by renting an apartment in Montmartre (via Airbnb) and keeping the tourist traps to a minimum. The apartment was perfect: on the 6th floor with a huge deck and the most inspiring view of the Sacre Coeur, a large sitting room, well-appointed kitchen and comfortable bedroom. The place was decorated with a variety of eclectic artworks and Jean, the guy who owns the apartment, left us with a list of restaurant recommendations and local hot spots.

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For four days we lived like Parisians. In the mornings we’d walk up the stairs of Montmartre and get a café crème, orange juice and croissant or perhaps some yogurt and granola for breakfast – always al fresco so we could watch all the people go by. We’d then explore on foot and Metro trains, choosing one or two spots we wanted to visit. For me it was E Dehillerin, the now-famous shop were Julia Child frequented for her kitchen supplies. The place was buzzing with locals and tourists in search of the perfect cast iron skillet, boning knife or copper soufflé tin. The store has everything a cook could ask for but due to limited suitcase space I opted for one item: a non-stick Madeleine pan for making the popular French mini-cakes.

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