Friday, August 24, 2012

climb every mountain

Today's soundtrack:
The King is Dead by The Decemberists
Kiss Each Other Clean by Iron & Wine
Temporary Resident by Imaginary Cities

Staying at the Ivory Tower right now are some more friends from Spain, one of which has never been to Scotland before.  So on Monday, we jumped on an early train from Dundee and made our way up to Aviemore.  The town itself is inside Cairngorm National Park and is filled with skiing and hiking clothing stores.  In a way, it's a less touristy, less mountains right in town, less uptight version of Banff, Canada.

After some directions from the Tourist Information by the station, we dropped our kit off at the Cairngorm Guest House (which I highly recommend, by the by), jumped on the next bus heading into the park and set off to climb Cairn Gorm.

Cairn Gorm is the peak on the left of centre
To climb Cairn Gorm, you essentially walk the cat track that goes up Coire Cas before turning off onto the stone staircase that takes you up to the top of Cairn Gorm.  It's not the prettiest of paths, but it is a far cry from the goat paths I've walked in the past.  And it's rather steep in parts, which made the descent a little painful for our knees, but my word, the view is worth it.

On a very clear day, you can see clear over to Ben Nevis, which keen readers will remember that Miguel climbed last year.  Even with the clouds, we could see over towards Inverness (I was amazed to discovered we were this far north).

After a good rest, we got up the next morning, stuffed as much breakfast in us as humanly possible, and set off for Loch an Eilein in Rothiemurchus Forest and a less hilly hike.  It's a 15km roundtrip from Aviemore, which made for another long day (all part of our not-so-secret plan to tucker out our houseguests).  After walking alongside the River Druie and passing through Inverdruie, we reached Lochan Mor, also known as the Lily Loch (for obvious reasons).

Before reaching Loch an Eilein (pronouned Loch 'nyellin), which means Lake of the Island.

In the middle of the lake is the island, which has the ruins of a 15th-century castle.  The sun crept out just long enough to allow for some pretty lovely photos.

Look at all those shades of green!
As we were finishing the loop around Loch an Eilein, the rain started in earnest.  By the time we reached Inverdruie, our visitors had learned a new Scottish word: droukit.  Well and truly soaked.  But the sun came out quick enough and by the time we'd got the train in Aviemore, we had more or less dried off.  And after a long day of hiking and travelling, we picked up fish suppers in Anstruther and collapsed at in a heap at home.

This was my second trip up to the Highlands this summer, but unlike the west side of Scotland, Speyside reminds me more of Western Canada.  Maybe it was the pine-covered path around Loch an Eilein, or maybe it was the absence of industrial development, or possibly the pelting rain, but something about Cairngorm National Park made me feel incredibly at home.  Either I've found a bit of Canada in Scotland, or I'm finally starting to feel a bit more like Scotland is now home.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

tortellini amatriciana... sort of

Today's soundtrack:
that annoying wasp that refuses to find it's way out of the kitchen, even though I've left the door wide open.  Just follow the fly out, you wee eejit!

Have I mentioned the Simple Spanish Food blog?  I came across it awhile back when I was searching for roscón de reyes recipes.  Amazing, authentic food.  If you have a real yen for Spanish cuisine, it's a great starting place.

But enough about Spanish food (and more about it tomorrow).  Last night was Italian night and I made tortellini amatriciana, which I based on another recipe found on the BBC's Good Food site.  Well, I say made, but the tortellini was fresh pasta from the Coop.  So really, I just made the sauce.  And how!

a good dollop of olive oil (always extra virgin, by the by)
1 onion, peeled and grated
1 garlic clove, finely diced
3 thicker slices of proscuitto (or pancetta, or bacon), cut into thin strips about 3" long
5-6 tomatoes, roughly diced
1/8 - 1/4 tsp chilli flakes, depending on how much of a kick you like
parsley and Parmesan to serve

Using a frying pan over low-medium heat (although this depends completely on your stovetop - you want a decent sizzle), heat the olive oil for about a minute before adding the onion, garlic, and proscuitto.  Cook at a good sizzle until the onion is softened (about 5 minutes).  Then add the tomatoes and chilli flakes, and gently simmer for 15 minutes.

Whilst the sauce is simmering away, prepare the pasta.  Throw a bay leaf and a splash of olive oil in with the noodles and water (full disclosure, this was Miguel's idea).  When pasta is just done, and the sauce has finished simmering for 15 minutes, drain the pasta and add to the sauce.  Sprinkle on some parsley.

Serve up, with a bit of Parmesan on top.

Mouth-watering or what?  On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the furthest departure from Kraft Dinner with ketchup), this only rates a 4, whereas the haddock from the other day rates a 7.  After all, it's still a pasta... and a pasta I didn't make.  Granted, it takes more time to make than Kraft Dinner (12 minutes vs. 30 minutes), and it lacks the florescent orange "cheese", and least this pasta doesn't leave me with a pit of self-loathing.  So there's that. 

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

a fish i know

Today's soundtrack:
"Wrong Side of the Country" by Old Man Luedecke

Continuing my not so secret plan to use food to convince each and every one of you to come and visit, I give you last night's dinner.  Or supper.  Possibly tea.  Even after reading this article in the Guardian the other day, I still have no idea what I just ate.  Anyway, here's my take on the haddock, spinach and cheese melt I found on BBC's Good Food website.

So rather than using two rather processed looking supermarket haddock fillets (going by the Good Food photo), I used fresh haddock fillets from St. Monan's (courtesy of Le Petit Epicerie).  Usually I go up to Doig's for fish, but I forgot they're closed on Monday afternoons.  

Tangential aside, if you're coming to Anstruther for a self-catered visit, you simply must go to Doig's on East Forth Street (just up from the Cellardyke harbour) for your fish.  Not only are the fish fresh (unlike the frozen fish sold in the grocery stores), the fish is from local fishers and expertly cut up by two rather dashing fellows with great Scottish accents.  So not only does the fish from Doig's taste better than that from the local grocery stores, it's generally a bit cheaper as well.  Plus, the fellows up there are incredibly friendly and full of suggestions.*

Anyway, I used much more than two tablespoons of grated Parmesan.  More like a good 1/4 cup.  I have justification other than I love cheese about as much as I love potatoes.  And chocolate.  Also beer.  There's just a lot of love.

Some things not covered in the Good Food recipe (but should be):  
- Season the fish with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, and don't be stingy with the tomatoes.  Or cheese.  
- I don't know if you North Americans can even get haddock, because I don't remember ever seeing it at Thrifty's in Nanaimo.  You might have to use cod instead.  Whatever you do use, just make sure it's fresh.  
- Also, use a bit of olive oil when wilting the spinach down... but don't wilt it down too much.  Remember, it'll be in the oven for 15-20 minutes.

Take that, Kraft Dinner with ketchup!

* All of this is, of course, if you're unlucky enough not to have neighbours like ours, who dropped off two beautiful mackerel the other day (along with Louis Jr for Miguel).

Sunday, August 05, 2012

in which mastery is still a ways away

Today's soundtrack:
The Olympics, of course.  Go Canada!

For my birthday and in a fit of post-Parisian afterglow, Miguel gave me Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking*.  Even a quick flick through is intimidating.  The lists of various crockery, the different kinds of sauces, and instructions on how to properly hold a knife all left me rather overwhelmed.  After about three months of working up my nerve, I decided to tackle a basic soup.  

Let us pause on the glory that is soupe au pistou, a Provençal vegetable soup made (almost completely) with seasonally fresh, UK ingredients.  I couldn't find fresh broad beans in the Cooperative, so I settled for the canned variety.  Nor did I have any fruity olive oil, so I used the Olea Cazorla olive oil that Miguel's mom had brought from Spain.  That being said, I don't really know enough about olive oil to know how a fruity olive oil should taste.  

The potatoes traveled the shortest distance, given to us by our neighbours in exchange for some homemade shortbread, and were fresh out of the ground.  If you know me, you know my love of the almighty spud, and these potatoes are amazing.  They beat by miles even the freshest potatoes available up at the Coop.  I must find some way of convincing Miguel that now is the perfect time to make a tortilla española...

Anyway, today was the last day of the soupe au pistou, and not having much left, I made a lovely toastie to go alongside - a mature cheddar, tomatoes, and homemade wholemeal bread beauty that rivals Calories of Saskatoon.  And as I'm just a little bit proud of myself that I managed to cook an (albeit simple) Julia Child recipe, I simply had to share it with all of you.  Sure, I'm not an executive chef with a knack for some amazing canapés (congrats Brock!), but I can make a mean veggie soup!

And just think - not long ago I subsisted on Quaker Instant Oatmeal (Maple and Brown Sugar only) and Kraft Dinner.  Fresh veg and fruit?  Perish the thought!  I don't know if any words can describe Miguel's joy at my foodie experimentation.  Like fried eggs.  I'd never eaten a fried egg until over a month ago, mainly because I was convinced they tasted rubbery and not at all like a scrambled egg.  I think this was a holdover from childhood and those plastic foods we used to play with in our Fisher-Price kitchen.  Plus, I didn't trust that wobbly yellow yolk.  But now, scrambled eggs are a distant and distasteful memory, much like the Sunshine Breakfasts on the BC Ferries.  Years!  Years I have wasted on scrambled eggs!  All hail the fried egg and it's wobbly yolk!

But I draw the line at snails.  And Louis.

* No, I haven't seen Julie & Julia.  My idea of a foodie movie is - and always will be - Chocolat.  I don't think that really needs explaining.