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Monday, 22 October 2012

Post the Fifty-ninth (in which everyone is rather worried about the Heineken Cup)

It's a funny old game, rugby.  I've written before about how everyone kind of reacts weirdly to certain results.  Leinster are currently two from two in the Heineken Cup, having beaten Exeter at home and Scarlets away, but you'd swear we'd already sent the cup back to the ERC with a note on it saying "Sorry, couldn't be bothered this year," the way some people are going on.  Ok, so the Exeter game didn't exactly go according to plan.  They were Heineken Cup debutantes, we were three-time winners and current defending champions, playing them at home.  It was expected to be a rout.  Instead, the Exeter Chiefs very nearly claimed a famous scalp - we were extremely lucky to get away with a 9-6 win.  It was almost "Exeter stage left", to pinch a phrase off One F, who I was chatting to after the game (and who I know reads this blog - Hi Derek!).  But, a win is a win as far as I'm concerned.

Fast forward to yesterday, when we travelled to Llaneli to face the Scarlets, a team many thought could cause a potential upset this season.  The cardinal rule of Heineken Cup rugby is that you have to win your home games.  Apparently Simon Easterby never got that memo.  Leinster were ahead 11-0 at the break, and looking comfortable.  Maybe a bit too comfortable, as it turned out, because whatever Easterby Mk II put in the half-time oranges, it worked.  Scarlets came out like men possessed in the second half and Leinster found themselves having to dig extremely deep to keep them at bay.  However, our scrum emerged as the piece de resistance in the last quarter of the game and was just too much for the Scarlets pack.  Final result was 20-14, and we had an all-important away win in the bag.

So why the long faces and the prophecies of doom all round?  Two words  - ASM Clermont.  I posted about my dismay at being drawn in the same pool as them back when the original draw was done, and I'll reiterate why - having finally won the Bouclier de Brennus in 2010, ASM have made the Heineken Cup their focus - they won't be happy until they win it.  Unfortunately for them, Leinster have thrown a spanner in their works every year since, having put them out in the quarter final in 2010, not letting them out of the pool in 2011 and beating them in the semi final this year.  We're not too popular around Montferrand way, I can tell you.  There Will Be Blood.  They've been rampant in the pool stages so far, beating Scarlets 49-16 in round one and Exeter 46-12 this weekend.  Two wins and two bonus points put them ahead of us in pool 5.  And guess who we play next?  Yep, ASM, back to back, away first and then at home.  Break out every sporting cliche you have, because this really is going to be a clash of the titans.  Unless we can put them down hard and early in both matches, Leinster's only hopes of progressing to the knock-out stages of the competition are as one of the two best runners-up.  Not a prospect I relish.  It's going to be a very long couple of months...

So, in one of the clumsy segues at which our heroine excels, some of you are probably aware that ASM were founded by and are still funded in a big way by Michelin tyre money.  Michelin are, of course, the same people who bring us the extremely prestigious Michelin star system for restaurants and who publish the Michelin Guide, the dining bible of places to eat in a given country.  This week, I attended the launch of a restaurant which has definite Michelin Guide potential - Samphire @ the Waterside.  Located in the Waterside House Hotel in Donabate, Samphire was the brain-child of Executive Head Chef Tom Walsh, who saw the need for more diverse dining options in the North Dublin area.  I was invited along by the lovely Jessica Collins, whose family run the hotel; so off myself and my own Mater Familias trotted on an extremely stormy Wednesday evening.

The menu we were treated to (and it really was a treat) was a ten-course tasting selection designed to showcase everything on the a la carte menu.  Tom has really outdone himself here, using local, seasonal produce cooked with exquisite attention to detail to create a dining experience that is really far superior to anything you'd expect to find in a hotel restaurant.  I enjoyed every morsel of:

Seared King Scallop, Potato & Garlic Soup, Parsnip Crisp, Marsh Samphire

This was one of my two personal favourite dishes of the evening - the scallop was cooked to perfection and the soup was of the most perfect, velvety consistency.  The samphire added just the right note of saltiness to the whole thing - perfect.

Parfait of Goat's Cheese, Roasted Hazelnuts & Tarragon, Beetroot Three Ways

This was nutty, cheesy gorgeousness all whipped up into a light mousse that melted in the mouth.  Perfect juxtaposed with the vinegary sweetness of the beetroot.

House Marinated Salmon Gravalax, Caper Berry Dressing, Garden Radish

Erm, I may have forgotten to take a photo of this.  It was a deliciously fresh piece of salmon, slightly thicker cut than you'd expect for lax, but I actually preferred this as I think it improves the mouth-feel.  I'm not a huge fan of smoked salmon, mostly due to the texture, but the thicker slices made for a far more pleasing texture to me.

Cucumber Sorbet & Compressed Melon, Yoghurt Dressing

This was the palate cleanser and it was fab, fab, fab.  The sorbet was so light that it literally started melting the second you cut into it with the spoon.  The watermelon was the ideal accompaniment, as, imo, they have very similar tastes anyway.

Breast of Wood Pigeon, Garlic Puree, Crispy Salsify

I do love a gamey bird... What can I say about this other than it was perfection on a plate.  I love pigeon anyway, and this was exquisite - gamey, earthy, succulent - and the salsify was absolutely gorgeous with it.  More, please!

Peppered Rare Tuna, Tomato Fondue, Basil Puree, Pepper Confit

I have to say, I absolutely LOVED the presentation of this - a perfectly seared rondelle of tuna with a little syringe of oil to inject right into the heart of the fish.  I'm very happy to report that the taste more than lived up to the visual.

Rump of Lamb, Sweet Potato Fondant, Celeriac Puree

Oh, lord, is there anything more beautiful than a perfectly cooked, rare piece of Irish lamb?  Just look at it!

Lemon Posset, Lime & Ginger Air

So this was the second highlight of a meal that had no lowlights at all - high praise indeed.  The lime & ginger air hit the palate with a massive whack of flavour, which one was not expecting from such a light texture.  The posset itself was mellow, creamy, and incredibly moreish.  I'm not going to lie, I would have happily eaten about three of these...

Carageen Pudding, Caramelised Brown Bread & Raspberry

Unfortunately, another dish I forgot to take a photo of.  This was my least favourite dish of the evening.  I just don't have a sweet tooth anyway and I found that the caramelised brown bread and raspberry compote were a little too sweet for me, and just didn't work with the brackish flavour of the carageen (a type of sea moss, for those of you who unfamiliar with it).  Everyone else at the table polished it off, though.

So, all in all, this was an excellent meal and I really admire what Tom Walsh and the Waterside are trying to do here.  They've certainly elevated the level of dining available in the North Dublin area and they deserve to do really well.  If ever you find yourself in that area, or, indeed, feeling like a drive with some amazing food at the end of it, take yourself out there - they're open seven days and you won't be disappointed.

Samphire @ The Waterside
The Waterside House Hotel
Donabate on the Beach
Co. Dublin
Ph: +353 (0) 1 843 6153

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Post the Fifty-eighth (in which our heroine is feeling rather autumnal)

So, it's that time of year again.  The evenings are drawing in, the mercury is dropping and, depending on whereabouts you live, the bangers are already going off, even though it's still weeks to Halloween.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, winter is nearly upon us.  I've noticed a slightly crazed aspect to several of my aquaintances at the thought of facing into almost four months of rubbish weather and minimal daylight, but I have to be honest, I absolutely love winter.  The crunch of fallen leaves underfoot, the smell of wood or turf fires burning, the absolute crispness of the air on a frosty morning.  Plus, you get to wrap up in layers and layers of snuggly clothing and light candles at 6pm.  And then there's the food.  Soups, stews, casseroles, bourgignons - what's not to love?

The only issue I really have with the transition from autumn to winter is bloody Daylight Savings Time.  Someone is definitely having a giant laugh at our expense there.  It's already been getting darker in the mornings for weeks now; you're just getting used to the bloody fact, and then they go and put the clocks back so it's bright again when you're getting up, but only for about three or four weeks - just enough time to get used to bright mornings again, before winter proper hits and it's still pitch black at 8am and your circadian rhythms are officially all over the place.  No wonder so many Irish people suffer from SAD, our body clocks are all going "Ah jaysis, will you just make your feckin' mind up already?"

So, before we get into the winter cooking repertoire of comfort food, here's what will more than likely be the last of my more summery dishes.  Like my last recipe, this has a lot of Moroccan-inspired flavours - I was obviously feeling under a Moorish influence recently.  Actually, Moroccan/North African flavours can be a great warming choice for winter - I just tend not to want to eat as many salads and the like as accompaniments once the weather turns that bit cooler.

Harissa Chicken Flatbreads with Coriander-Lemon CousCous - serves 4

4 chicken fillets                             2 tbs harissa
Juice & zest of 1 lemon                 2 tbs olive oil
400g couscous                               Bunch fresh coriander, chopped
4 flour tortillas                               Salt & pepper

1. In a non-metallic bowl whisk together your harissa, lemon juice and olive oil.  Butterfly your chicken fillets and add them to the marinade, tossing to coat thoroughly.  Cover and pop into the fridge for at least an hour, but the longer the better.  Turn them every so often to make sure they're marinating evenly.

2. Heat a heavy pan (or better again, a griddle) and cook your fillets on a high heat for 5 minutes on each side so that you get a nice, blackened crust.  Turn the heat down and cook through, turning once more.  Cut or shred each fillet into four or five rough pieces and rest on a warm plate.

3. While the chicken is cooking, prepare the couscous - pour boiling water over the couscous in a large bowl to cover by a depth of about an inch.  Cover with clingfilm and leave aside for the water to absorb.  After about 5 minutes, fluff up with a fork.  If there's still a bit of water in it, recover and give it another few minutes.  Once all the water is absorbed, fluff again, stir in the lemon zest and coriander and season to taste with salt and black pepper.

4. Heat your tortillas and scatter over the chicken.  As you can see, I've added spinach & onions and the cottage cheese dressing from my steak recipe here.  It would also work very well with feta cheese or even just yoghurt.

5. Serve with the couscous, extra salad and maybe some extra lemon wedges for squeezing.