Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Saying goodbyes...

It’s 6.30 in the morning and I’m just back from the train station to drop Barry off for his move to Basel. We’ve been planning to move there for quite a while now but it’s finally happened. So this morning he left to start his new job on the 1st September. I’ll stay in Dundee a bit longer to finish another paper on my work but once that published I can leave as well and hopefully that should be before the end of the year.

But to “celebrate” our last weekend in Scotland we’ve eaten pretty well in the last few days. On Friday night we had 9 friends over for dinner and had a lovely meal (if I do say so myself). Then on Sunday, Barry had planned me a surprise lunch so we set of in the car to a “secret” destination….as I was trying to guess as we drove along, we arrived in a place called Inverkeilor where we went to a restaurant called Gordon’s. He had read a review of this restaurant in The Times a while ago and decided we should try it out (don’t you just love surprises like that!).

They had a set menu with two options for each course (they have more options for dinner) and I could have eaten all of them, they sounded so good. Whilst we were having a drink an making out choices, they served us a lovely sesame and cheese biscuit and some very good olives. In the end, we decided to split and taste each others but each had our preferred choice.

For starters I had smoked haddock with Isle of Mull rarebit with a piperade and basil dressing. This was a lovely dish and a combination I hadn’t thought off. The sweet spiciness of the piperade combined well with the smoky taste of the fish and all of this was softened down by the lovely melted cheese on top. Barry had roasted red pepper and plum tomato soup with a pesto yogurt, which was very nice as well, but I’m just not a soup person in restaurants.

My main course was the supreme of guinea fowl with a calvados mousse, vanilla parsnip puree and pan juices and Barry went for the Venison. I really really liked this dish, the guinea fowl was perfectly cooked and the mousse was a nice surprise under the crispy skin but I loved the parsnip puree! It was smooth as velvet, creamy yet still light and the vanilla added a lovely accent…it was almost like eating a savory custard.

Then we shared the cheese platter and the dessert as we both wanted both. The hostess suggested to eat the cheeses in order or “ripeness” starting from Pont l’eveque to Gorgonzola, Isle of Mull, Dunsyre blue and finally Epoisse. They were all lovely but my favorites were the last two, I guess I prefer the smellier ones, whereas Barry preferred the Isle of Mull and the Dunsyre blue.

Finally dessert, a coconut and Malibu soufflĂ© glace with caramelized pineapple and sorbet. It was definitely a feast to the eyes I but I was a bit skeptical at first as I don’t really like Malibu and often find it quite sickly. However, I’m glad to say I was wrong because it wasn’t anything like that. It was fresh, creamy, light and lovely. We finished the meal off with coffee and homemade vanilla tablet and honey chocolates. At £25 pp (£38 for dinner) for the food, I think this is a great find and I thought the portion size was perfect where I was very satisfied but didn’t feel stuffed at all. They also had a very impressive wine list, but as we were driving, I only had a glass of the house wine. We then went to the nearby beach of Lunan Bay for a walk to digest. All in all, a great day and a perfect way to say celebrate leaving at another one of Scotland’s hidden treasures! If anyone is in the area, I would definitely recommend you make a detour to this restaurant.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A very fancy jam sandwich

I was very excited to hear the theme for Sugar High Friday was jam! One of the big farming industries around Dundee is berries, and a big proportion of British strawberries and raspberries are grown around here. In the summer months there are lots of fresh local berries for sale in the shops and there are many farms where you can go and pick your own. This is a great afternoon out and often on a Saturday we would pack up a picnic and head over to our favourite farm with friends. After a great meal in the sun, we’d set off into the fields to pick some berries and eat some as you go along (“one for the basket and one for me”, is the general motto). This give you a great supply for the week to pick at and whatever you can’t eat goes into the freezer or gets turned into jam.

I love making jam, it’s so easy, plus, your house smells great!! I was always fascinated by the whole process as a kid, in the summer my mum would buy trays of fruit at the market and cook them in her big copper pan on our camping stove outside (gas was better then electric and it was just to hot inside; the joys of living in France). To make this I used my friend Allyson’s recipe (she is a jam queen!) and just heated the sugar in the oven (about 100C, equal weight to the berries). I added this to the berries with the juice of a half a lemon (I think I had 500g berries, which made 2 jars) and did the frozen saucer test. For sterilizing, I use my mum’s technique of washing the jars, fill them with boiling water, leave 5 min, then air-dry on a clean towel. I find when you add the jam to the jars when its still hot, this will create a natural vacuum and I’ve not had any problems with mould.

Most of the jars have gone as presents as we are moving to Basel soon (Barry leaves on Tuesday!) but I’d kept one back for a special occasion, and this was it. I decided to cook this recipe, which looked incredibly appealing (seemed fitting as they are hosting this SHF) and as I was going to a last minute dinner party with a milk intolerant child present it was perfect. It took under 30 minutes to make from start to finish and tasted fabulous. Unfortunately, my baking tray wasn’t big enough so the sponge turned out quite thick, which made it hard to role up. Therefore, it ended up looking more like a jam sandwich than a roll but this didn’t affect the taste, and it went down a treat with everyone….definitely a keeper!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Lucky stars

Apologies, but it’s gonna be a long one….I’m just back from a two week break in Japan with a colleague (and a subsequent week in bed with an evil Japanese cold!). The trip was part work as we were attending a conference and as the flight was already paid for we stuck on some holiday. We didn’t get off to a good start as our bags were left behind in transfer in Istanbul and as the next flight was 5 days later we spent the whole conference in the same clothes (three cheers for free t-shirts and hotel slippers!). This was a bit nerve-racking, especially as we had to present our work in a seminar. But of course everything went fine, we met lots of new people, caught up with old friends, ate lots of wonderful food and finished with a lovely leaving dinner complete with Japanese dancing (and they made us all participate! Lots of embarrassing pictures for the next meeting I think).

Friday, when the conference was over, we travelled to Fukuoka with two friends (Yumie and Manami) I met working here last year and there were our bags (I’ve never been so excited at the sight of clean clothes!). Bags and all, we piled in Yumie’s family car along with her mother and after a great Tempura lunch, drove off to the mountains where we had the most amazing three days. We stayed in an apartment annexed to the Rikuro Okamoto museum, which Yumie’s father designed as they are good friends. They treated us to a lovely home-cooked meal of raw katsuo marinated with soy and ginger, somen noodles with orka, cucumber and dipping sauce, tomatoes with sesame dressing and boiled taros you dipped into soy and ginger. It was so fresh, delicious (o-ish-ii!!) and beautifully presented (didn’t take many pictures as I wasn’t sure they’d appreciate my fascination with photographing my food) and after a lovely dessert of uirou (traditional Nagoya sweet) we went outside to look at the stars.

After a traditional Japanese breakfast of rice, miso soup and several dishes (not too keen on the pickled fisheggs but the rest was tasty) we set off to visit the ruined Oka castle. We climbed up and enjoyed stunning views of the surroundings, followed by a lovely lunch at Tajimaya in Takeda city. Lunch was perfectly presented in a two tiered lacquered bowl where lifting the top layer revealed a lovely collection of chicken and vegetables simmered in soy broths, along with fresh fu (wheat gluten), kuzu kiri (transparent arrowroot noodles) with a miso, yuzu vinegar and pickles. Lifting this layer showed the accompanying sticky rice with chestnuts and there was also some clear broth to go with it. We then visited the associated sweets shop where they had beautiful sweets made from sweet bean paste and big displays of Obon sweets (this is the festival where dead relatives are remembered and these sweets are displayed at the house altar). The rest of the afternoon was spend driving around visiting scenic bridges, waterfalls, a winery and Guernsey (in Japan!?) farm where we had the hugest, creamiest ice cream straight (almost) from the cow.

One Sunday we had another great day visiting one of the tops of mount Aso, a volcano that is still active. The crater was amazing, so barren yet beautiful in this lush green landscape of rice paddies. We then descended and had our own little volcanic lunch of a Dengaku set. We got a mountain of glowing coals in the centre of our table and 6 skewers each with a variety of vegetables, tofu, fish and a mini-crab to grill to perfection. Once done, the waitress came to smother the skewers with a Dengaku glaze (Miso-fermented bean paste, stock, Mirrin-sweet cooking sake, sugar and in this case Yuzu-citrus fruit) and you then ate this along with pickles, rice and soup. This was a real treat as I am a self-proclaimed Miso-monster. I love the stuff and would have it every day if I had the chance. Stuffed (keko desu!) we continued to Yumie’s uncles sake brewery were he gave us a guided tour of the place. I never realized it was actually made like wine from a mix of steamed rice with water (his saying was good water = good sake = good times) and even though some of the details were “lost in translation” we got the general idea. We then purchased some bottles and went back home for another feast that included horse sashimi (a local delicacy), a variety of sweets for dessert and some sake tasting which was really really nice! I was pleasantly surprised as the stuff I’ve had before was always quite strong and harsh whereas this just melted in your mouth. I was kicking myself I didn’t buy any more and the 300 ml taster bottle disappeared quickly. We then retreated outside again and as the sky was sooooo clear saw about 10 shooting stars in 30 min and had a stunning view of the Milky Way.

The next morning we were woken up (slightly in shock) at 5.30 by Yumie’s mum as outside a truly rare sight was to be seen around the volcano. They call in Unkai when the old crater around the current tops fills up with a sea of clouds and we were lucky enough to witness it! So off we drove in our pyjamas to the nearest viewpoint and it was truly stunning, the world was just so peaceful and pretty. We then went back to bed and after a lazy breakfast said goodbye to Manami and went to the nearby onsen town of Kurokawa. Onsens are Japanese mineral hot-spring baths and this town contains many, they are all beautifully designed. So we spent a while soaking in the turquoise water surrounded by the smell of cedar (the building material of the onsen) enjoying the view outside and then retreated to the associated restaurant for a delicious lunch where we shared a portion cold soba noodles and then had Yamaimo rice with many accompaniments. Yamaimo is a strange vegetable as it looks like a potato but once grated it turns into this white slimy slush. You mix this into your rice and slurp it with delight…however, I didn’t really go for the sliminess but our Japanese hosts gladly took care of leftovers. But the rest of the dishes were delicious as always and the black sesame ice cream we had for dessert was lovely. After that we packed up and headed for Fukuoka, which was a bit of a shock after the peaceful mountains but it seemed very vibrant and alive. We caught up with Yumie’s father and all went to a yatai (food stall) to have ramen, the trademark food of Fukuoka and it did taste very good although it was a bit hot in the weather (38 degrees Celcius and 80% humidity).

On our final day in Fukuoka, Yumie’s mum taught us how to make matcha (powdered Japanese green tea) according to the rules of tea ceremony, which was a real treat. For dinner, Yumie’s father taught us how to make his family recipe of cold miso soup, a quick summer dish with lots of fresh vegetables and fish to keep the farmers going. The luck didn’t stop there as it turned out there was a hanabi festival where they shoot off lots of fireworks. Unfortunatly, on the way there my camera died ☹ so no pictures of the stunning 90 minutes display. It was beautiful, especially as we were surrounded by lost of ladies and girls all dressed up in pretty yukatas (summer kimonos). Also no pictures from our subsequent 4-day stay in Kyoto I’m afraid. But then, I didn’t get to make the most of it as my colleague was short of cash and just not very interested in Japanese food so I had to contend myself with a shopping trip to Nishiki market and didn’t get to eat any of the beautiful Kaiseki food Kyoto is famous for. However, I did manage to buy this stunning looking book so will hopefully be able to recreate some of those lovely dishes at home with all my edible souvenirs! And I thank my lucky stars that I have such wonderful friends over there that have given me an insight into their culture, home and kitchen....hopefully we'll meet again soon.