Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Tomatini - the summer cocktail you need in your repertoire

There's something pretty badass about a signature drink, isn't there? And I don't mean something run of the mill, like a glass of Pinot Grigio (I do not seem like a badass when I order this. I seem like a Real Housewife)

No, I mean something like an Old Fashioned, or a shot of bourbon on the rocks. Or even better, this jazzy new cocktail, the Tomatini, which has become my new favourite drink.

I was recently in Amsterdam on a vodka-tasting trip with Ketel One. One evening, we had dinner with one of the Nolet Distillery's head honchos, Bob Nolet (11th generation of the family business) When I asked Bob about his favourite way to drink Ketel One, he told me of the Tomatini, which was created by Jimmy Barrett de Cecco in Dubai.

Bob's trick is to leave his drink in the hands of a capable barman (or mixologist, if you're that way inclined). Instead of asking for a specific drink, ask them how they would best prepare a certain spirit, or simply for their speciality. 

Or just order this, because once you've tasted it, you won't want anything else. And just by ordering it, you'll be almost as cool as Bob himself. 

It has similar notes to a Bloody Mary, but without the thick spiciness. The finished cocktail is a translucent pale pink, speckled with pepper, with a taste that is pure summer. It's like a fresh consommé, or caprese salad (without the mozzarella) with a hefty kick of vodka. If you don't like your cocktails super strong, then top it off with some sparkling water.  

The real zinger in this is the white balsamic vinegar. I'd never even heard of this before the tomatini came into my life, but it's a zesty, punchy little number. At a push, you could use regular balsamic... but it muddies up the colour and is just a little too rich. The white version is lighter and gives the cocktail plenty of pep, without overpowering the delicate balance of flavours. If you didn't know it was in there, you'd just be wondering what that vaguely familiar tang was.

The Ketel One Tomatini


1 fresh tomato (or 2-3 cherry tomatoes)
50 ml Ketel One Vodka
15 ml White balsamic vinegar (this is easy to pick up in any deli/fancy food shop)
15 ml Freshly squeezed lemon juice
10 ml Sugar syrup (you can skip this if you don't need the sweetness - I personally don't use it)
1 pinch Salt
1 pinch Black pepper

Cut the tomato into 8-10 chunks and muddle in a cocktail shaker. 

Add the remaining ingredients with lots of ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with black pepper.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Wheat-Free Banana Pancakes (that actually taste good)

I'm just back from boot camp. This means that I am a lean, mean, (calorie-counting) fighting machine. I'm hoping that this new me is going to stick around for a while, because she's a little skinnier than the last one, and has a mean right hook.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Bluebird Cafe comes to Dublin (kind of)

I could have sworn I was in Nashville. In front of me, two songwriters were talking about how they wrote their award-winning tracks. One was in an embroidered checked shirt, and the other in cowboy boots. A man had honest to God tipped his hat to me earlier, and I was tucking into a bowl of chicken wings. It felt a little strange, truth be told, to be nibbling on a wing while making eye contact with the girl singing… but not strange enough to make me stop. In fact, if anyone else tried to make a pass at my wings, they received a Look. A sharp Look. 

All of which is beside the point. I wasn’t in Nashville: I was in Dublin. The Liquor Rooms, to be precise, where the Nashville tourist board were hosting an event last Wednesday. As you know, I left my heart in Nashville (along with a portion of my liver and whatever organ processes an excess of pork fat). So I was there like a flash. 

We were there to see Jessi Alexander and Jon Randall, who performed a few of their hit songs, and told us a little bit of the story behind them. Jessi wrote The Climb, which you’ll know as a Miley Cyrus (and X-Factor?) song. It was also in the Hannah Montana movie, which I didn’t know because I didn’t watch the Hannah Montana movie, not even when I was looking after someone’s kids that one time and I don’t even think her dad is good looking so why would I have seen it twice? God. 

She also wrote (but didn’t perform) I Drive Your Truck, the track that won Song of the Year at the CMA’s the year I was in attendance. 

Jon wrote Whiskey Lullaby, a song which I’d never heard of but was sung by Allison Kraus and Brad Paisley.

What I love about The Bluebird Café (apart from the moody low lighting and the waitresses who shush talkers) is the way you hear a song in a completely different light. Instead of the bells and whistles of a high octane performance, or an elaborate track meant for radio, you hear what the songwriter had in mind when they put pen to paper (or iPad to Garage Band, or however they do it now).

You mightn’t know the songs, or even be into country music, but you can see the raw talent of the songwriter, and hear them sung as their creators intended. 

Hopefully I’ll be back in the Bluebird one day, but until then it’s nice to have had a little taste to tide me over.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Hull - Least romantic town in Britain, or city on the up?

Poor old Hull. It always seems to get the rough end of the deal, written off as a bland city in the north which nothing much to offer. Just recently, it's suffered another blow, being dubbed the least romantic town in the UK in a survey conducted by Hotels.com. It's a bit of a bum deal, if you ask me, but the rest of the list is also a bit odd. London? Really? You won't include Milton Keynes, but you'll throw London in the pile?

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

5 Tips for First Time Skiers

The snow is thick, the runs are clear, and ski season is officially in full swing. If this is your first time hitting the slopes, and you're a bit wary of heading off into the unknown, allow me to pass on some of my wisdom. And, when I say wisdom, I mean that in the loosest form of the word. What this really means is that I am the best person to advise newbies because I still am one myself. I've only ever been skiing once, on a trip to Avoriaz. So I know what you're thinking, what you're worrying about, and what you should do.

1. Before Departure: Prep Those Thighs

I am 100% serious about this. After my first few hours on the slopes, my thighs were on fire. When you're starting out, your legs aren't used to the position they're forced into all day. Add in a bit of accident anxiety and you're likely to be holding on to a fair bit of tension in your legs. The answer is a pre-emptive strike. Before you head off, do your squats. Build up the strength in your thighs and your bum, and you'll be laughing. I do the Live Lean 15 minute workouts from Brad Gouthro. Do these for a couple of weeks and you'll have the legs of an ox.

2. Think Like a Bunny

If you have never set foot on the slopes, then you're at exactly the same level as a toddler. And, to be honest, you're probably a few steps behind them. I think kids tend to be better on skis because they don't have the panic that most adults do about injuries. I was so terrified of falling that it was all I could think about. I went down the runs at practically a crawl, as small kids whizzed by me. My advice? Accept the fact that the best place for you to learn is with the small bunnies on the children's run. You'll get a good solid starting point, and the bonus that no one tells you about is that those kids are at the perfect height to steady yourself if you start to fall. They're like little moving hand railings.

And do make sure you start out with lessons. They're offered at almost all resorts, and will be a million times better than a friend or loved one showing you the ropes. They'll get bored, you'll get frustrated and it will likely end in tears.

3. Know Your Limits

This leads on from number two, but is an important one. Don't expect to be flying down the black run after your first day. You'll be lucky if you stay upright for most of it. If you're a competitive sort, don't be disheartened if you watch your friends going off on the super runs while you're left staggering around trying to get off the lift. Take it at your own pace.

4. Save Your Pennies

Before you head away, it's tempting to splash the cash on a load of new gear. Think about all that you'll need - as well as the pants and jacket, you'll need goggles, hats, gloves... the list goes on. But even if you do go on to fall in love with winter sports, chances are you won't wear the stuff for most of the year. Spend your money on things that you can wear off the slopes, like cosy base layers, thick woolly socks and funky hats. For all the rest, try your best to borrow from a friend, or buy second hand. That way, if you don't find that you're a pro in the making, you haven't wasted your cash (and stuffed your wardrobes with bulky gear).

5. Think Beyond the Skis

If you're heading away for, say, a week, don't plan on spending the whole time skiing. You'll need a bit of a break and besides, there's usually plenty more to do and see. And by that, I mean fondue and raclette. Eat both with wild abandon, with enough frosty glasses of white wine to numb that ache in your thighs (and the bruise on your bum)

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A Moonlit 'Spirit Stroll' through Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

The story of the Shakers is one which stuck around with me for a while after I left their village. Partly, I was charmed by Pleasant Hill, where they made their base - a charming rural patch of land in Kentucky, lined with stone walls and undulating fields. But mostly, I was intrigued by their history.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Memory Dish: S'Mores with Homemade Marshmallows

We got a new wood burning stove this week. I haven't quite gotten the hang of all of its nuances yet - I'm either prodding a few blackened logs and muttering under my breath, or staggering back from a fire roaring so loudly it sounds like a fighter jet.

But when it does settle itself down, it's nice to be back in front of a fire. And as I hypnotise myself in front of the flames, there's a recurring idea that pops into my head. Marshmallows!

Last year in Nashville, I finished off a meal with s'mores at the Tavern Midtown (home of the balsamic martini). I'd just finished the most incredible burger, so I was pretty involved with that, until a local girl insisted we all share a few. So out came the Bunsen burners, and the instant flashbacks to chemistry classes in school. Bunsen burners! Do you remember the thrill of being allowed to use them? I can't even remember what we did with them, but I do remember fiddling with the plastic tubes and being shouted at for messing with the gas taps.

Anyway, the s'mores. I hadn't actually tried them before, though I had of course heard of them. Those All American campfire treats, eaten while huddled together in plaid and hunting hats, waiting for the serial killer to come out of the trees.

It wasn't quite the same scene in Tavern, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. You take your cracker (more of a digestive biscuit), pop a square of chocolate on it, melt your marshmallow over the flame and smoosh them all together. And there you have it!

I wanted to get fancy when I made mine, so I made the marshmallows. This is insanely easy to do. I went with the David Lebovitz recipe, and as he says, if you can whip egg whites, you can make marshmallows. I've seen fancy pants ones in the shops recently, with salted caramel, rose petals and all that jazz. But as they were about €7, they did NOT make it home with me. You do need a sugar thermometer, but don't let that put you off. They're very cheap, which is just as well, because some tosser just broke mine.

You can, of course, just buy the marshmallows.

I feel a bit weird giving this recipe after such a stern talking to from my dentist yesterday. He has me convinced that all of my teeth are about to spontaneously combust in a big dust ball of icing sugar, and now I'm terrified. But he did tell me that if you eat sugar with meals, rather than in between, the damage is all but eradicated four hours later. So if you want to be good, eat these WITH a steak.

And that's all your life lessons for today.

S'mores with homemade marshmallows
Inspired by Nashville
Adapted from a David Lebovitz recipe

8 sheets of gelatin
200g sugar
100g golden syrup
4 large egg whites
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
140g icing sugar
140g cornflour

1. Soak the gelatin leaves in 500ml cold water.

2. Put the sugar, golden syrup and 80ml of water in a saucepan on a medium heat. You will need a sugar thermometer - sorry.

3. In an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Whisk in a pinch of salt.

4. When the syrup reaches 118 degrees Celsius, carefully pour the mix into the egg whites, while the beater is still on high. Mind you don't splatter yourself.

5. Pour the gelatin leaves (and two tablespoons of water) into the syrup saucepan and swirl around until it's melted. Then pour this mix, and the vanilla, into the egg whites, which are still being beaten. Keep the mixer on for five minutes, until the outside of the bowl feels cool.

6. Mix together the cornflour and the icing sugar, and dust the hell out of a baking sheet (feel free to make pretty patterns in it). Make sure every inch is well covered. I used what I think is a brownie tray.

7. Scoop your mix into the tray, using a plastic spatula, and make pretty wave patterns for the hell of it. Leave it to try for at least four hours.

8. When it's dry, dust the top with the mix, as well as any work surfaces you're going to use, and a pizza cutter or knife (the pizza cutter did an amazing job). Cut into whatever shapes you like.

These would make amazing gifts, in a little box. But we're not interested in that right now - let's get to the s'mores!

I got these chocolate chip cookies from Le Fournil in Sligo, But you can use any biscuits you like - digestive if you're traditional (I hate digestives).

Then you need to toast your marshmallows. Ideally, you'll be snuggled in front of a fire, an Avoca blanket slung across your shoulders. But I also tried doing this with a candle, and it did the trick perfectly.

Put a square of chocolate on your cookie, then squish your melted marshmallow on top of it, before adding another cookie. Give it another wee smoosh, and then eat it, while making a solemn vow that you'll never tell your dentist what you did.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Five reasons to love French supermarkets

My God, do I love a French supermarket. I may adore ambling through the actual markets, or starting the day in a patisserie, but there's something about the hypermarché that gets my tummy all of a quiver. 

Monday, 29 September 2014

Hotel Review: The Cliff Townhouse, Dublin

Where: The Cliff Townhouse, Dublin

Why: Have you ever finished an amazing meal and wished that your bed was just that bit closer? This Dublin hotspot may be the answer. The Cliff Townhouse is a “restaurant with rooms”, combining incredible seafood in the elegant restaurant with comfortable and chic bedrooms upstairs. All this in a beautiful Georgian building on the edge of Stephen’s Green.

Highlights: The food is as great as I had hoped it would be, with a predominantly seafood menu offering up the best ingredients Irish waters can produce. We feasted on perfectly cooked scallops with pork belly, creamy risotto, rich and tender monkfish and juicy lobster. The townhouse itself is stunning, with a grand staircase, tall sash windows and ornate furnishings creating a homely feel. In a world of high tech bathroom gizmos and hotel room wizardry, it was a relief to be in a bedroom which just worked – proper taps in the bath, windows you can open and a cosy Donegal tweed blanket on the bed.

Lowlights: The listed building does have a lift, but the rooms aren’t wheelchair accessible.  

Best for: Serious foodies, looking to satiate their appetites in a charming setting.

Concierge’s Choice: The Little Museum of Dublin is just a few doors down, and came highly recommended by the team at reception, who sometimes have complimentary passes for guests. Other recommendations included the new bar Peruke and Periwig on nearby Dawson Street, as well as The Hairy Lemon.

Ask for room number: There are only nine rooms in the townhouse, some overlooking the green and others facing the back. All have their own quirks and vary in terms of size and shape. Room 205 is a particular stunner, with a park view and an ornate fireplace.

Guests of honour: Samuel Beckett is one of the most prominent former guests the building has seen, choosing to write in one of the stately rooms, presumably by a roaring fire.

Rates: The ‘Cliff Townhouse Experience’ includes dinner for two in the restaurant, an overnight stay, full breakfast and a welcome glass of champagne. Rates start at €233 for a midweek stay in a townhouse room, in the winter.  For accommodation only, a townhouse room starts at €143 per night, midweek.

Contact: theclifftownhouse.com / 01 638 3939

This review originally appeared in the Irish Independent. 


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