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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.

team

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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Chapter OneClare, if you would like to talk to me about your recent visit my number is xxxxxxxxxx. Regards, Ross.

Gulp. It was a direct message to my Twitter account from Ross Lewis, exec chef and co-owner of Chapter One. I’d tweeted a few very positive messages about my recent (and first ever) dining experience at his renowned restaurant, plus one tweet expressing [slight] disappointment with my steak. Could he really be upset about an honest tweet regarding sinew?

Far from it. Ross was upset about my disappointment, not that I tweeted about it. He told me the particular cut of steak on the menu that night is a “heartbreak” for him because while it’s the most flavourful cut it has potential to have sinew hidden deep inside the meat. Upon delivery he can cut the meat to check for sinew and see nothing; but later a steak sliced from that bigger cut could have a bit of the stringy white tissue that’s not visible on the surface but reveals itself only when the diner cuts into it. So the majority of people who order it will get the most savoury, beautiful steak they’ve ever had but a few might get a bit of tough sinew in their meat.

I could hear his genuine frustration that I ended up being one of those few; for the next 20 minutes we talked candidly about food and cooking like two people who spend breakfast talking about lunch and who eat lunch whilst talking about what to cook for dinner (read: obsessed!). It was a proper chat between two food enthusiasts and for that 20 minutes I forgot I was talking to a Michelin-starred chef. He was down-to-earth and sincere, and his passion and dedication to his craft was obvious. This is one chef who doesn’t rest on his laurels.

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Honeymoon 20

Even on the sunniest of days, when the sky and the ocean simultaneously reflect the most radiant shades of blue and the birds chirp away in the full, lush trees and everyone’s showing off their stems in rarely-worn shorts and exposing their bashful big toes in sandals; even on those rare, beautiful Spring days in Dublin, there’s something missing.

It was one of those days yesterday, and while Mountaineering Man toiled away at the office I decided to head out into town and get some much-needed Vitamin D, plus a few other things I’ve been meaning to purchase. My first stop was Fallon & Byrne, a place that has become almost a sacred place for me. Some people have churches; I have gourmet food shops and farmers’ markets. Even if I only need one item, I amble down every aisle and rest my eyes for at least a few seconds on every single item on every single shelf. From smoked salted almonds and squid ink lasagna sheets to sweet-smelling star fruit and whole wild rabbits, the selection is comprised of the most wonderful, mysterious things that never fail to inspire.

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For the first year after I moved to Ireland, I lived alone in a lovely upper-floor apartment in Drogheda. And for several years prior to my move to Ireland, I lived alone without any live-in beaus or roommates to speak of.

I don’t look back on this with any sadness or regret; in fact, when I finally decided to ditch the roommate situation and branch out on my own, I was beyond ready to go solo. My last roommate (in Los Angeles, where I lived at the time) was an actress who didn’t have a day-job, which meant she was in our apartment all the time. It got to the point where I’d pull into our driveway after a long day at work and groan when I saw her car there – just once I wanted it and her NOT to be there, laying about on the couch and nagging me about everything from whether I’d read her magazines without asking to when I’d planned to move the unwashed fork from the sink into the dishwasher.

Though for the first few weeks I was a bit chicken (one unfamiliar noise in the dark would almost make pine for the company of that lay-about actress) I settled into bachelorette living and embraced having my own space. It was nice to come home from work, fix myself dinner and not have to worry about whether someone else had already tuned the television to some stupid show I had no desire to watch. I could literally kick off my shoes, flip on the telly and eat cereal out of the box if I so pleased.

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When I first moved to Ireland just over three years ago, I was a wide-eyed American girl with sense of adventure and an open mind…or so I thought. After the initial excitement of living in a new country wore off, I started to realise that living in Ireland meant I would be getting a lot of practice working on something I wasn’t so good at: Patience.

I recall the first time I strolled down to the post office during lunch, just to find out many post offices are closed during the 1-2 PM lunch break. Seriously? How does this make any sense? Most people use their weekday lunch time to run errands, like go to the bank, drop off the dry cleaning and GO TO THE POST OFFICE. GROAN!

Particularly when I lived in Drogheda, a trip to the grocery store could take twice as long as planned thanks to the chatterboxes that work the cash registers. Oh Mary, you’re looking well! What are ye up to? Aw that’s a lovely restaurant, we love it. Make sure to get the steak and….oh sure treat yourself, you deserve it! This could go on for minutes…tens of minutes. Never mind there’s a half-dozen of us in line behind Mary, waiting to get back to work or back to the car that’s sitting in the pay-by-the-hour car park.

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