Friday, 31 December 2010

2010: The Good, the Bad and the…

When I look back on 2010 it will not be as one of my more successful years. I’ve lacked motivation and focus in a number of areas. Work has been pretty meh for the most part. I've been even more accident prone than usual - managed to lose the diamond out of my engagement ring after a fall on the ice in January, and chip a front tooth during another fall a few months later (less ice more wine involved on that occasion). A lack of cash has meant an inordinate number of weekends sitting on the sofa drinking cheap wine and, er, complaining about the lack of money (although on the plus side, the new series of Doctor Who was fabulous) and never mind the fact that add up the cost of all those bottles and it probably would have paid for a couple of slap up dinners.

More distressingly, the anxiety issues, which I touched on briefly here, and which I thought were receding in 2009, came back to haunt me. I never wrote on this blog about, for example, the truly excruciating experience of the full blown panic attack in the clinical psychologist’s office because, frankly, I don’t know how many people would be that interested, and this blog is supposed to be food focused. But, where food forms such an intrinsic part of ones life, it is natural that other topics will come creeping in. And it is an indisputable fact that if I could sort out my head once and for all, I would probably not resort to the comfort eating and drinking that tends to be my diet downfall.

What of the “diet”? Or (since I hate that word) rather the “life plan that enables one to shed excess poundage while still eating beautifully cooked, varied and healthful foods”? Between January and April there was steady downwards movement on the scales. Around the time I started this blog, I’d hit a bit of a hump and I never really got past it. I’ve dithered. I am an expert ditherer. I’ve had plenty of ideas to kickstart my interest: detox eating, setting myself date specific challenges, even the act of writing a blog for gawdsake, but the overall results have been desultory. My gym attendance has been sporadic. I’ve gone to meetings to stand upon the WW Scales of Truth and then chickened out again after bad weeks. My current relationship with my bathroom scales has been reduced to me eyeing them mistrustfully every time I go to the loo.

So what has gone wrong with my thinking in 2010 and how can I fix it for 2011? Well, the anxiety issues have not and are not going away – that is the sad fact. I’m currently on a waiting list for something called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which I understand aims to reprogramme thought patterns and achieve better response mechanisms in the subject (which would be me). I’m hoping that talk of my eating habits can feature quite heavily in this, since it is clear to me at the moment that there is a strong link there.

Until such time as I rise to the top of the waiting list (and with the NHS that could well be many months) I’m going to continue to blog and to follow all the lovely blogs that I have come across. I’ve recently been reading just as many food blogs as diet blogs, and I love the way some of those people manage to make all their meals an act of celebration, the sheer joy and exuberance they take in food. One of the things I learned this year that continually being in “diet” mode (yes, that word again…) can suck all the joy out of eating – something that was really brought home to me by the bacon sandwich that may just be one of my best meals of the year. I want to aim to have everything I eat be carefully considered and constitute a real treat – whether it is a juicy satsuma or a really gorgeous cup of proper coffee or a full blown five course extravaganza. There will always be times when something needs to be grabbed on the run, but a little bit of forethought should prevent that from happening too often. Mindfulness and quality over quantity – these are 2011 mantras.

Detox eating may not be sustainable for me for long periods of time (by which I mean anything longer than two days looking back to posts on the subject), but I could certainly consider building some “cleaner” meals into the weekly food plan. Immediately springing to mind - a sharp and punchy fruit smoothie, a really gorgeous tuna steak, seasoned and griddled with some stir fried veg and perhaps a touch of five spice, or a roasted sweet potato with avocado and tomato salsa – fantastic, no sacrifice, and smug-makingly virtuous.

It’s sadly obvious as well that setting myself time or weight related goals doesn’t work either. In fact, they seem to send me running in the opposite direction with my fingers in my ears going “La, la, la.” Of course, I have just over eight months until I get married and I would love to be able to slip into a slinky size 10 gown and ooze elegant sophistication a la Hepburn – rather than blowsy bosoms a la Monroe. But there is no point killing myself over that particular deadline. I’m going to rely on Bridal Magic: which is to say that every bride looks beautiful on their wedding day whether or not they more generally resemble Jabba

And it’s not been all bad. My weight, while it has gone up and down over the course of the year, has not risen significantly overall. Anyone who has had a weight problem in the course of their adult life knows that sometimes just stopping the upwards trend is an important step in the right direction, so I’m going to give myself credit for that – not much, but a little. I’ve also started writing regularly – not just here, but also by starting a creative writing course at York University, finally recognising that a creative outlet is a healthy thing for me. I want to continue to develop my writing in 2011 – not necessarily with a view to doing anything with it, but just because it is something I love to do.

Ooooh, and I tried bone marrow for the first time in September. No year where you've managed to have a completely new food experience can have been entirely without merit.

Happy New Year everyone - let's make it a good one.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Recipe corner – Best Ever Braised Red Cabbage

Well, two sleeps left to go until what might just be the most important meal of the year, and like all good foodies I’m getting quite excited. We’re planning to be quite organised and do the majority of the prep work beforehand so on the big day itself we don’t have to worry about anything more then bunging stuff in the oven. But what do they say about the best laid plans?

Tonight, the main job will be to put together the best braised red cabbage in the world, ever and I’ve reproduced the recipe below (I believe it was originally by Marcus Wareing, but I’m not sure where exactly it came from). This is not a low point option – I have calculated the pro points, but more for the sake of interest than anything else; if I were in counting mode I’d probably use little if any butter and sweeten the vegetable with grated apple and onion, and it would be lovely. But just occasionally, this is worth the hit.

Ingredients

1 small red cabbage, cored and sliced
1 red onion, finely chopped
150g unsalted butter
200ml red wine vinegar
50g clear honey
100g demerara sugar
1 bay leaf
Sprig of thyme
Large pinch of salt

Serves 4-6, 8 pro points per person (if 6)

Set the oven to 150.

Mix together all of the ingredients and place in a roasting tray. Cover with foil and cook for about 1 ½ hours, stirring regularly, until most of the liquid has evaporated.

(Note: if, after the 90 minutes have elapsed you still have a lot of liquid, it might be worth sticking the tray over a high hob to reduce – we did this last time we cooked it in order not to muck up the timings of other dishes, and it tasted just as nice).

Edited 23/10/2017
This recipe also works really well if you just bung everything in the slow cooker and cook on low for around 8 hours (or overnight).  The colour of the cabbage will be slightly less vivid but the flavour and texture will be utterly perfect.  If you use this cooking method, I would suggest reducing the amount of vinegar by half.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

A bit of a do

We had our team Christmas “do” yesterday. Half the people I work with are off today. Of the remaining half, some of us feel somewhat delicate, but since I did most of my serious drinking after leaving the group to hit a Leeds hostelry with D, my dignity (in the office, at least) remains intact.

And so, The Spice Quarter. For £9.95 a head for all you can eat, I shouldn’t really complain. After all, the food was just there to provide lining for the stomach. But I’m going to (complain) because this is my blog and I can if I want to.

Firstly, I am always going to be suspicious of somewhere that purports to do Indian, Thai, Chinese and Italian cuisine. It’s like those dodgy takeaways you see that do curry, pizza and chicken and chips. You just know that none of those are going to be done in any way competently. So I did not have high hopes. And, to be strictly fair, none of the food that I tried at The Spice Quarter was actually inedible. It just all tasted a bit….nothingy. Bland. The curries had no heat and very little taste, plus you had to stand for a good few minutes at the buffet fishing around for bits of meat in the oceans of neon coloured sauce. The pizza looked and tasted like it had been taken from a supermarket freezer – thick, doughy base and a load of pale, sloppy cheese that tasted…pale and sloppy. I couldn’t be bothered to even try any of the desserts – they all appeared to be school dinner rejects with pallid, puckered skins forming beneath the lights. I’ve just remembered that I did quite like a tandoori chicken wing. But that’s about it.

There’s another one of these lurking in Cardiff apparently – but I can only assume, since it has won an award for being the best Indian restaurant in Wales, it is a) better or b) Welsh people don’t like good curry.

The Spice Quarter

Electric Press Building
Great George Street
Leeds
LS2 3AD

Monday, 20 December 2010

A Cold Front. And Back. And Sides.

Well, I’ve spent most of the last week skulking in bed with woman flu. Which is to say the real deal rather than the man kind. There has been lots of snivelling, sniffing, coughing and a marked decrease in my appetite - generally an absolutely sure-fire sign that all is not well.

So foodie adventures have been somewhat thin on the ground. I did develop a craving for cream of tomato soup last week, which was something of a cure all when I was wee. It tasted just as orange as I remembered it – lovely. And the last two Sundays on the trot we have had a very tasty oxtail stew. It’s the first time I’ve ever cooked oxtail and I absolutely loved it – so thick and unctuous. I think Santa (aka my Mum) is getting us a slow cooker for Christmas which I am extremely excited about – and oxtail stew will likely be making an early reappearance in the New Year, as that kind of cut is perfectly suited to long, slow cooking.

Christmas feasting is all planned out, and D ventured to M&S yesterday to stock up on some festive nibbles. I am particularly looking forward to trying the mini cubes of pork belly – which you may have seen Caroline Quentin waving about on the TV advert. What is it about Christmas and pork products? As well as my beloved sausage meat we’ll be eating quite a lot of gammon over the next few weeks as well, gorgeous with scrambled eggs for a light lunch or with roasties and pickles for something a bit more substantial.

I am making no advance apologies for going a bit OTT at Christmas (always assuming my appetite has returned by then) but I’ll be hauling myself up on the WWagon in the New Year in a last ditch attempt to hit beautiful bridedom.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Recipe corner - Nigella's Christmas Chutney

I didn't go in for homemade Christmas presents until a couple of years ago.  The reason being is that I am one of the least crafty people that you will ever come across - crafty as in Blue Peter, mind, not crafty as in a fox.  Or are they cunning?  Anyway, the point is that although I appreciate pretty things, I can't make them.  I can't draw, my handwriting is illegible and I even struggle to cut in a straight line.  So you can understand why I didn't want to inflict my homemade offerings on my mostly lovely friends and family.

That is, until I cottoned on to the idea of cooking their presents.  At first, this seemed doomed to failure, as biscuits or cookies or chocolates, all your typical gift fare, need to be nicely packaged and that might mean I'd have to try and make boxes or something.  But chutney - now, chutney is a different thing.  Buying a kilner jar is easy enough, and fairly cheap, and even I can just about manage a gift label.

I've experimented with different ones for the past few years.  Piccalilli is a firm favourite, not least because it goes so beautifully with the Christmas cheeses and meats.  And this year, in addition to a jar of that, my nearest and dearest will be receiving a jar of Nigella's Christmas Chutney.

Say what you like about Nigella - but I love her for the way she utterly embraces Christmas.  When I saw the recipe in Delicious magazine a month or so ago I knew it had to be done.  The chutney has currently been quietly maturing away in the cupboard for a week or so now, and already, the flavour is wonderful.  When I gave some to D just a minute ago he said "It tastes like Christmas" - and that is exactly right.  It is a lovely blend of sweet and sour and spice and all the flavours are completely redolent of an English Christmas.

Ingredients

750g cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped small
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
500g fresh cranberries
250g soft pitted dates
Grated zest, pulp and juice of 2 satsumas or clementines
400g caster sugar
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
500ml white wine vinegar
2 tsp Maldon sea salt flakes or 1 tsp table salt

Makes roughly 2 ltrs worth - negligible pro points per person


First sterilise your jars - and I tend to do this just by putting them through a hot dishwasher.

Put the apples, onion, cranberries and dates into a large pan.

Add the satsuma or clementine zest, then squeeze in the juice and add the pulp.

Add the sugar and spices then pour the vinegar over and sprinkle the salt.

Give it a good stir then turn on the heat and bring to the boil.  Once there, turn the heat right down and let it sit for an hour or so, uncovered, to bubble away until it is all reduced to a deep red pulp.

Spoon into the sterilised jars and seal.

In the pan, to become an hour later...

...Christmas in a jar!
The longer in advance you make this the better - Nigella recommends about 2 months.  Although I have to say it is already delicious after a week.  Oh, and I should add that I halved this recipe and it still came out beautifully - although I'm now wishing I had made a full batch!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Ghosts of Christmas dinners past

Yesterday, D came home with a plump little pheasant which will form the basis of our Christmas dinner this year. It is all rather exciting, because for the first time we will be on our own for this most important of meals so we have been able to please ourselves with the menu plan. The bird currently reposing in our freezer will be served with braised red cabbage, celeriac and thyme gratin and plenty of sausage meat.

The sausage meat loaf is the only traditional item on there – and even then, it is only really a tradition in my own family. Sausage meat is the one constant that we all insist on; it was the one item that all the family were guaranteed to fight over, to the extent that my Mum used to say that she was providing more sausage meat than turkey. The Christmas sausage meat is the foodstuff that ended my six month foray into the world of vegetarianism as a teenager. I remember vividly that Mum, despite the many misgivings she had as to my dedication to the vegetarian cause went out and bought me a veggie alternative to Christmas dinner. I remember, or think I do, sitting down to lunch and seeing this…grey mass on my plate where the meat should be. To be fair to M&S it probably wasn’t that bad, but to me every mouthful tasted like dust. I struggled to hold on to my anti meat principles through that last meal, and then, the next day demanded a turkey and sausage meat sandwich.

(That doesn’t take the prize as my worst Christmas lunch ever though, because that honour was awarded a year later when my Dad, my brother and I were all struck down with what we think was food poisoning from eating oysters on Christmas Eve. I think by the time my Mum had got the dinner on the table (we used to entertain all four grandparents at our house in those days so she was not serving it for herself alone) the three of us were all sprawled pathetically in the other room away from the smell of the food. )

But back to the sausage meat – and it’s funny how certain foods can be so evocative, especially those foods that we associate with Christmas. One of my favourite memories of my late mother in law is the first Christmas dinner I ate there: it was the first time that I had ever been away from my parents and I felt a little sorry for myself. Come lunchtime, she proudly presented me with not one but two different varieties of sausage meat – D had tipped her off in advance and she had gone to great lengths, consulting many recipes, to provide it for me, despite the fact it was not a feature in their household.

And do you know what, I have just realised while writing this, that I don’t actually know how my Mum makes her sausage meat!  Since she won’t be around on Christmas Day (she and Dad will be spending it with my brother and very heavily pregnant sister in law) I had better get on to her in advance. Given it forms a central part of my Christmas ritual, it would never do for it to be inauthentic!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Giving the gift of Gougeres

Ah, snow.  It may be cold and wet and make your toes go slightly numb when you are walking down the road with a hole in your boot, but it has its uses.  For instance, today, I am at home.  Living thirty miles away from the office has its uses too - especially when no one you work with lives in the same sort of direction as you.

In fairness, the roads are terrible and that's even if you manage to get out of our car park - D has helped to dig several cars out today.  And the station is a mile trudge down icy streets.  So I didn't have to exaggerate much when I phoned in.  And I've used the time wisely - a lie-in followed by a session in the kitchen making some gorgeous smelling Christmas chutney and a loaf of banana bread.

Today I'm going to give an early Christmas present which is a foolproof recipe for the best canape in the world, ever.  Gougeres are basically puffs of cheesy choux pastry - but despite the fact that they look incredibly impressive (homemade pastry always has that effect on people) they are a cinch to make.  Having this recipe up your sleeve means that whenever you decide to throw an impromptu Christmas cocktail party you will never be without a nibble for your guests.  These are cheesy footballs par excellence (was mine the only household that bought a tub of those things every Christmas, despite the fact that nobody seemed to like them...?)

Oh, and I've even put them through the WW recipe builder, in case you're the type of person who not only throws impromptu Christmas cocktail parties, but likes to be true to their diet while in the midst of them. These are a mere point each - although I defy you to limit yourself to just the one!

Ingredients

125ml milk (skimmed works absolutely fine)
100g butter, diced
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
150g plain flour
4 medium eggs
100g Gruyere cheese, grated
pinch of cayenne pepper
small pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
paprika for dusting (optional)

Makes 50, 1 pro point each

Combine the milk, 125ml water, the butter, salt and sugar in a saucepan and set over a low heat.  Bring to the boil and then immediately remove the pan from the heat.  Add the flour and beat the mixture with a wooden spoon until smooth.

Return the pan to a medium heat for about 1 minutes, stirring, to dry out the paste.  It is ready when it all comes away from the sides to form a ball in the middle of the pan.  Tip into a bowl and allow to cool for a minute.

Add the eggs one by one, beating with the wooden spoon.  At first, you will have a mixture that vaguely resembles baby sick (sorry!) and doesn't seem to want to come together - but persevere.  Eventually you will have a smooth, shiny paste.  At this point, tip in three quarters of the grated cheese, the cayenne and the nutmeg. You can make the mixture a couple of hours in advance up to this stage.  To prevent a crust from forming cover with clingfilm, allowing the clingfilm to sit on the surface of the choux pastry like skin.

Most recipes would now tell you to transfer this mixture to a piping bag - but I've found that there is absolutely no need.  Line some baking trays with parchment paper and use a teaspoon to blob the mixture onto the trays, well spaced apart as they will puff up in the oven.  Sprinkle with the remainder of the cheese.

Bake at 200 degrees C for 15-20 minutes until the little buns are dry and crisp on the outside but soft on the inside.  Dust with paprika before serving.

This recipe is taken from "Eggs" by Michel Roux - an amazing book that is well worth getting if you like, um, eggs.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Snow time like the present...

...for a little review.
Pro Points has now been up and running for 3 weeks, and this little blogger has lost three and a half pounds. Not a stellar rate of loss by any means, more of a slow, steady crawl down the scales – certainly nowhere near the dress size that WW suggested I could drop for Christmas.

But let’s look closer…

Week 1 – Monday to Friday
Pro Points rock! Hurrah! And then…

Week 1 – Saturday and Sunday
…D and I discovered the B52. By which I do not mean the late 90s pop group who invited us to join them in their love shack, but a shooter made up of coffee liqueur, Baileys and Cointreau. I could explain the complex emotional reasons for us deciding it was a good idea to start drinking shots at lunchtime, but it is probably easier if you just assume that we both like a drink. I would recommend the B52 – however, it comes with a health warning; three of these, washed down with a few pints of cider and it is quite likely that you will buy a box of mince pies on the way home, inhale two of them and fall asleep on the sofa at seven in the evening with pastry crumbs round your mouth.

Week 2 – Monday to Friday
Mostly spent sulking, refusing to exercise and eating cheese. See self indulgent post here.

Week 2 – Saturday and Sunday
Made a ten hour round trip on a bus in order to attend a friend’s thirtieth birthday party. Such are the lengths that I will go in order to see my dearest contemporaries and also to get plenty of cheap vodka. Consumed copious quantities of Smirnoff – and was mostly undeterred when the mixers started running out (“No more Diet Coke…? No problem, we’ll just use this wine that’s lying about instead! Hic!”) A good time was had by all – although the pain of five hours on a National Express bus with a hangover is not to be underestimated. I fed my poor, beleaguered system plastic sandwiches to try and perk it up.

Week 3 – Monday to Friday
Let’s haul ourselves back up on that Pro Points wagon! Free fruit – eat your fill of seasonal satsumas! Marvel at your own smugness.

Week 3 – Saturday and Sunday
My parents come round for dinner on Saturday night. Between us, D and I have created seven, delicious courses. The theme of the evening is “An Extravaganza of Cheese” in honour of my father’s fervent appreciation of the stuff. No one around the table succumbs to the cheese sweats – but it is a close run thing. Sunday finds D and I suffering from post dinner party ennui – possibly occasioned by the fact that each of the courses was accompanied by a different bottle of wine. At seven o clock we dive head first into a bucket of chicken and “special” coleslaw. My foodie credentials, slim to start off with, take a further battering.

I think, from this little round up, we can take the following points.

1)  Pro Points would appear to work. Over three weeks I probably pointed 10 out of 21 days, and made six gym visits. This has been enough to not only counteract all the fervent eating and drinking that has gone on during the other 11 days, but also to make a three and a half pound dent in my existing paunch.

2)  I definitely drink too much. And, as my thirtieth birthday fast approaches, I no longer fall into the category of debauched, “mad for it”* yoof. As a teenager, I did not spend Saturday evenings drinking White Lightening cider behind Romford library – preferring instead to stay in and watch Gladiators. But that appears to be the last time I adopted a sensible approach to alcohol consumption. If I have any hope of fitting into a size 10 wedding dress, the shots, the cider, the vodka and the wine all have to go…or, at least, have to become a less prevalent part of my weekend.

On a final note, can I just say how disproportionately excited I am about my lunch? M&S Turkey and vegetable soup with sage and onion stuffing balls – it’s Christmas Dinner soup! It’s 7 points for what looks to be a generous portion! And there are snowflakes on the packaging! Can you imagine a more comforting lunch for an extremely snowy November day?

*I suspect the fact that I have used this expression dates me even more than the admission that I’m fast approaching thirty. I don’t suppose even Liam Gallagher says “Mad for it!” anymore. Sigh.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Recipe corner - Madhur Jaffrey "shrimp" curry

Have I happened to mention how much I adore curry?

I was quite aged before I discovered my passion for spicy food. The primary problem for me was that for many years I couldn’t bring myself to eat rice. I assume it was a textural issue because I can’t imagine there being anything about the taste of rice that I could dislike. To this day, one of the very few foods that I am unable to go near is rice pudding (I’m actually shuddering just thinking about it), but thankfully, I now have no such problems with the savoury stuff.

My tolerance to chillies has grown as well, to the point where I have even dared to cook a vindaloo at home (and very nice it was too). So, the world of Indian cuisine has become my own personal oyster.

We are (un)lucky enough to have a fantastic Indian takeaway a 30 second jog away. If you’re ever in York (and not dieting) can I recommend the Gate of India? Situated in the back room of a pub, it is not the most prepossessing of locations, but the food is absolutely delicious – and I always try to leave some on my plate to eat cold the next morning.

But curries are incredibly easy to make at home as long as you have a reasonably well stocked spice cupboard. This one, by Madhur Jaffrey on the BBC website, is incredibly quick and has the added bonus of not using a pre-bought curry paste, so you can justifiably feel smug and domestic goddessey about producing it. The addition of cherry tomatoes at the end is our own and probably completely unauthentic - so feel free to leave them out – although I like the little pops of sweetness throughout the curry. I have a feeling some spinach stirred through just at the end, wilted in the residual heat, would also be rather good.

Ingredients

1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp paprika
½ tsp ground turmeric
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed to a pulp
2.5cm/1in piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated to a pulp
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
397g/14oz can reduced fat coconut milk, well shaken (or stirred)
¾tsp salt or to taste
1 tbsp tamarind paste
450g/1lb peeled and deveined, meduim sized uncooked prawns (shrimps)
100g cherry tomatoes, halved

Serves 4, 6 pro points per portion

In a bowl, combine 300ml/10fl oz/1¼ cups water with the cayenne pepper, paprika, turmeric, garlic and ginger. Mix well. Grind the coriander seeds and cumin seeds in a clean and add to mixture.

Put the spice mixture into a pan and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes. The sauce should reduce and thicken. Add the coconut milk, salt, tamarind paste and bring to a simmer. Add the prawns (shrimp) and simmer, stirring now and then, until they turn opaque and are just cooked through. Just before serving, stir through the cherry tomatoes.

Friday, 19 November 2010

In a fog

It appears that winter has well and truly arrived. Looking out of the office window, all I can see is dense, pale fog. I don’t find Leeds an attractive city at any time of the year but at the moment, shivering under its damp blanket, it is particularly grey and gloomy.

And perhaps it is the weather, perhaps it is the fact that I currently leave for work in the dark and return home in the near-dark, perhaps it is the thought of turning 30 in just over five weeks time, but the last week or so I have been indulging in some full on melancholia. You know, making like a Victorian damsel and taking to my bed in an attempt to sleep my way through my off mood.

In times like this, comfort food is what is required, and, as we all know comfort food does not always equal diet friendly. In fact, very often it equals the exact opposite. On Monday, for example, I indulged in a slice of Starbucks ginger loaf cake (good, although not as good as my Mum’s ginger cake) and make the rookie mistake of not checking the pro points until after it had been consumed – 12. Ouch.

Fortunately, last night’s supper, a delicious bowl of roasted tomato and ricotta risotto hit the comfort food spot without being too damaging – this comes out at 11 pro points which is not bad at all for a main meal, and a luxurious one at that. I’ve also indulged in my perennial favourite of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs this week, which again seems to suit the vagaries of the new pro points plan and is exactly the kind of food which is required at the moment.

If anyone else is feeling a little down in the dumps, may I recommend this recipe? I think of this as hug-in-a-bowl soup, it really does make everything seem a little brighter. Well, everything except the sky over Leeds.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Recipe corner - Blue cheese and broccoli soup

I don’t think it will come as a particular surprise to anyone that blue cheese and broccoli is a gorgeous combination. This lovely soup recipe, which I tore out of a magazine many years ago, is an absolute winner. The cream cheese makes the texture fantastically luxurious while the blue cheese adds depth of flavour – but in a sufficiently modest quantity that the points are kept low.


Ingredients

1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
450g broccoli broken into florets
Veg or chicken stock made up to 850ml
200g extra light soft cheese
300ml skimmed milk
60g blue cheese, crumbled

Serves 4, 4 pro points per serving

In a large pan, using a couple of squirts of spray oil if desired, saute the onion and garlic until softened (adding a generous pinch of salt will help get them nice and sweaty).

Add the broccoli, tip in the stock and then simmer for around 15 mins until the brocolli is tender.

Remove from the hob, chuck in the soft cheese and allow it to melt into the soup in the residual heat.

Once the soup has sufficiently cooled so as to no longer be a hazard, transfer to a blender and whizz until smooth.

Meanwhile, put the milk and blue cheese into the same saucepan and gently melt the blue cheese into the milk. When the soup is blitzed, return it to the pan and stir through the milky cheesy goodness.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Going Pro

Massive excitement on Monday morning when Weight Watchers launched its brand new plan, “Pro Points” to existing members (with a roll out to non members in January). It seemed to spark a bit of interest in the mainstream press, as the new system moves away from assigning food a value based on its calorie and saturated fat content to some kind of jiggery pokery where you have to think about protein and carbs and speed of digestion or something. I’m no scientist (unless having a Double Science GCSE counts for anything, which I’m pretty sure it doesn’t) so I just tend to adopt a “nod and smile” policy when people try to explain any sort of scientific theory to me. All I heard, during the explanations of the new plan, was that fruit was henceforth to be zero points. Bring on the bananas!

My instinct tells me that a well established company like Weight Watchers does not rock the boat, particularly the popular, money spinning boat, unless it thinks it is on to something. Yes, the cynical amongst us may point out that by forcing people to pay out for an entirely new set of equipment, the tills will be set ringing. But actually, a massive re-branding exercise like this costs a great deal of money, and they run the risk of alienating their core customer base. So I’m going to assume there is method to all of this and embrace it wholeheartedly.

Zero point fruit is wonderful. And has also made me realise how many times in the past I eschewed an apple or a satsuma in order to squeeze in an extra biscuit. I’m not even sure why because I like fruit. I think dieting tends to bring out the rebellious child in me to a certain extent – why waste two points on a banana when for two and a half I can have a Kit Kat. Never mind that I might have actually wanted the banana more than the chocolate. And going back to basics is kind of fun as well. I’ve been recalculating favourite food items, getting a feel for how I can make best use of my allotted allowance while still enjoying gorgeous, fit-for-a-foodie food. Stay tuned for some Pro Point recipes as I begin to get a bit more au fait with it all…

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Vanilla is the new Black

Well, it's been a few days since we came back from London now, boasting a few new pounds in my paunch. But since we had some absolutely lovely food – and some very necessary (to soak up the alcohol) deep fried bits and pieces, I can’t complain at all.

Tomorrow sees the launch of the new Weight Watchers plan, which of course is all very exciting, but in the meantime, a little bit more food porn.

Monday lunchtime found us meeting up with an old friend. Sort of. You see, Vanilla Black is a restaurant that used to be located in York. Much as I love my home city, it doesn’t boast the greatest selection of eat-outeries in the world, but Vanilla Black was something rather special. It is a vegetarian restaurant – but one doing food that non vegetarians actually want to eat. Even ardent meat-loving males.

Anyway, a few years ago, it decided, a la Dick Whittington, that all the streets in London were paved with gold and packed up all its wordly belongings in a red spotted hankerchief and headed down South - much to the disappointment of the York clientele; especially me, who had only managed to eat there once and been totally bowled over by the quality of the food. And so, finding ourself in the Big Smoke for the weekend, we resolved to go along and pay it another visit to see if it lived up to our memories of the place.

The menu which we examined carefully in advance, looked pretty good – although we wondered (and here our aged memories could be playing tricks with us) if it was slightly less “fun” than previous incarnations. I’ve probably said it before, but D and I are suckers for playful food which is probably why we adored the Fat Duck so much, and why J. Baker’s continues to be one of our absolute favourite places to eat. Vanilla Black had grown up and become a little more po faced. But then, it is now situated within spitting distance of Lincoln’s Inn and probably has to take itself as seriously as all the pinstripe clad lawyers wandering around.

When we came to make notes on the food afterwards a lot of little nitpicks started to emerge. “It sounds like I didn’t like it,” D observed, “But I actually did.”

Observation 1: The portions were small. I would freely admit that I am greedy, with a capacity for food that would put many a rugby player to shame. But if it hadn’t been for the fact that I got through two slices of bread and the best part of a jug of water over the course of the meal, I think I would have left with quite an empty stomach.


Lentil dahl with potato mousseline
Yukon potato cakes with smoked olive oil mayonnaise
Observation 2: Most of the individual component of the dishes we ordered were well cooked and tasted good. I just wasn’t always entirely sure whether they all belonged together. Sometimes it felt like something had just sidled onto my plate from the plate next door. Take the lentil “dahl” with curry oil and potato mousseline. I just don’t quite understand what those pale smears of potato added to the very flavourful, beautifully textured beluga lentils. And my dessert, a Valrhona chocolate truffle with cherries, coconut ice and mint crisp…that wasn’t so much an individual componet gone wrong as three puddings that had all accidentally fallen into one bowl together. I like chocolate and cherries, chocolate and coconut and chocolate and mint. I am less keen on cherries, coconut and mint together.

Cauliflower "cake"


Cheese pudding with pineapple chutney

Observation 3: Some of the flavours lacked oomph. There was a bit of the Southern Softie to them – especially the smoked olive oil mayonnaise which accompanied D’s potato cake starter (“very subtle” he said, a little mournfully) and also his peanut butter parfait which looked rather wan.


Peanut butter parfait


Valrhona chocolate truffle

But don’t get me wrong – overall, we ate well; £30 for three courses is not at all bad for decent quality food and it would be a brilliant place to take a vegetarian friend for lunch. I think possibly it has got a little more starchy and lost some of the quirkiness it displayed in the York Years, but I guess such things happen to people, and restaurants, when they cross the Watford Gap…

 Vanilla Black
17-18 Tooks Court
London
EC4A 1LB



Friday, 5 November 2010

The Countdown to Christmas starts here…

I was born and raised a Catholic which, naturally, meant attending Catholic school. Which in turn meant that the countdown to Christmas only really started with the lighting of the first candle on the Advent wreath to a rousing chorus of “The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came”.

Many years, and a serious lapse, later and it’s a slightly more secular event that launches the run up to the Most Wonderful Time of the Year ™. You may already have guessed if you’ve been out and about this week….yep, it’s the Starbucks red cups. And, more specifically in my case, the consumption of the first gingerbread latte of the year.

As a general rule, I like my coffee black and strong and don’t go in for the milky confections that they sell on the high street (although I have recently developed a slight obsession for the Flat White). But a gingerbread latte as sickly and rich as it may be…even thinking about it makes me want to start humming a Christmas carol. I can’t wait to have one later this week. Possibly in lieu of breakfast. I’m also hoping, probably in vain, that Starbucks decide to bring back the cranberry bliss bars that they sold a good few Christmases ago now and which were a gorgeous, dense cross between a cake and a biscuit, with sharp little pockets of dried cranberries and a drizzle of white chocolate. So if the Starbucks’ Santa happens to be listening….?

One tall, skinny gingerbread latte with no whipped cream (in my opinion, no adult drink with the possible exception of hot chocolate should be topped with whipped cream) will cost you 2 WW points (although, of course, this is all set to change come the launch of Pro Points) which is a lot less than a mince pie and, in my opinion, no less festive.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

First Star of the Year

Michelin star bashing has become rather prevalent in some quarters. It seems that there are certain chefs, critics, food bloggers have fallen out of love with the system that has been pre-eminent in judging the quality of restaurants for 100 years. And yes, it may be that there can be a bit of a bias towards French cuisine – I haven’t read a single review of Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester which justifies a three star rating (although desserts are supposed to be very good – maybe there were lots of sweet toothed inspectors that year).

Anyhoo, you’ve got to have some sort of quality measuring system, and whichever one you use is going to be subjective to a greater or lesser degree. I personally like the fact that Michelin inspectors remain completely anonymous – to the extent that apparently they’re not even allowed to tell their parents about their line of work! And also, I quite like French food, so any bias in that direction is no great hardship for me. D and I made the decision that the Michelin Guide was going to be our go-to and we’ve seldom been let down.

2010 has not been a good year on the star front – in fact, the lowest since records began (or since we first started going out). You can blame a combination of the forthcoming nuptials, or the downturn in  the economy, or the fact that, as civil servants, we’ve both been slapped around the face with the wet kipper of a two year pay freeze. We finally broke our duck last Saturday with a very pleasant lunch at The Harwood Arms in Fulham.

The Harwood Arms is a gastropub, although in our view, the pub part of the proceedings seemed to be restricted to a few people eating bar snacks at the...well, bar. There didn’t appear to be a lot of punters in for a quiet Saturday afternoon pint. That said, it had a good relaxed atmosphere, and it did a first class Scotch Egg.


Scotch egg take one.



Scotch egg take two - check out that yolk!

It was a wee bit disappointing that there we no intercourse frills and furbelows. Some people find them annoying, but I absolutely love the pre-starter amuses, or the palate cleanser before dessert, or the petits fours. These are often where you see the chef at his most frivolous, with the result that you often get the tastiest little morsels of the meal. But lunch itself went a fair way to making up for that disappointment – it was exceptionally tasty.

For starters, we shared snails and smoked bone marrow on toast, and a home made pork pie with fried crispy pigs’ ears. It was my first time eating both marrow and ear, and I enjoyed both very much, although it was hard to distinguish the taste of the ear-meat (hmmm, that phrase does sound slightly odd read out loud) underneath all the deep fried crispiness. The snails were absolutely fantastic – when I’ve had them previously they have always been drenched in some sort of sauce; left to themselves they were lovely and meaty and a real pleasure to eat.



Pork pie with crispy pigs' ears

Snails and smoked bone marrow on toast

We decided to share two main courses as well, as we were having a hard time deciding. I must admit, when it came to the halfway point I was extremely loath to surrender up the fallow deer chop with the little deer pasty on the side – this was the standout dish of the day. D said he would just have eaten the pasty alone, but I also enjoyed the tender, slightly-pink-in-the-middle chop. The fact that the cod was served with a cauliflower cheese croquette did make the swap slightly less traumatic – everything tastes better with cauliflower cheese on the side.


Fallow deer chop, with deer pasty

I was slightly concerned when I accidentally smashed a glass prior to dessert, that I'd be getting a chef's surprise in my poached quince.  But whether he took his revenge or not, pudding tasted fabulous.  I thought the parkin was a touch dry - I've made it myself and I'm sure my homemade efforts were a bit more luscious and sticky, but I'm probably being pernickety.  Or else extremely biased.
Poached quince with mead ice cream and parkin
So, final verdict on the first star in our collection this year?  Well, a couple of new foods ticked off the "I really should try that" list, a superlative Scotch egg, some gorgeous game and very cheery staff made this a lovely place to visit for lunch.  It certainly didn't have the wow factor, or the glamour of some restaurants we have visited but anyone who thinks that Michelin isn't interested in anything except starched tablecloths and French poncery should go pay this place a visit.

Oh, and how many points?  Probably about 500.  Worth every one.

The Harwood Arms
Walham Grove
Fulham
SW6 1QP
0207 386 1847



Friday, 29 October 2010

Quickfire Friday

Friday already! The days have really run away from me this week.

An exciting weekend coming up for us; we’re off down to London to indulge in some Michelin starred pub grub, some very interesting vegetarian food and some near-the-knuckle humour courtesy of Mr Frankie Boyle. Hopefully photos and details will follow – although probably not so many of Frankie since this is, nominally, a food blog. If he makes any food or diet related jokes I’ll try and note them down. Unless he is rude about fatties in which case I’ll throw Minstrels at him.

We’ve been doing some improvising foodwise this week – it’s the end of the month and we didn’t want to burden the credit card with a big food shop. But nevertheless, we’ve done pretty well with the spoils of the freezer. Last Friday we found that an entire head of garlic, roasted slowly at a medium heat and then crushed into a paste will give a fantastically sweet, mellow garlicky-ness to mashed potatoes which then makes a fabulous side dish for pan fried fillet steak or slow roasted, crispy skinned pork belly. The soft roasted garlic cloves are also gorgeous squeezed from their skins and squished into crusty bread – no butter required.

If you fancy a curry this weekend, I would recommend popping over to the Good Food channel website and trying this Kashmiri lamb with fennel seeds by Anjum Anand. I find her terribly smug to watch, but this dish was absolutely gorgeous – and with low fat yoghurt and skimmed milk adding creaminess to the sauce, it works out as pretty low in points. D’s only criticism was the portion size – he says he could have eaten double what I gave him (and actually, I secretly agree).

Oh, and in a fit of domestic goddessdom I made these Nigella chocolate banana muffins, which at 4 points a pop are less than a Starbucks skinny effort, and very moist and tasty. Next time, I’d be tempted to stir a handful of chocolate chips through the mixture for a bit of extra interest and take the points hit.

Have a lovely weekend!

Friday, 22 October 2010

Recipe corner - Roasted tomato and ricotta risotto

This is the second risotto recipe I’ve put up in the last few weeks. I suppose at least I’m consistent – or dull, depending on your point of view. But I have to say, it’s the second risotto I’ve made in the last few weeks which has made me want to lick the plate clean while managing to be reasonably virtuous WWwise.

I wish I could claim the credit for this combination of ingredients but I can’t. I first came across it in this blog entry here, which in turn was based on a Jamie Oliver recipe. Hey, I plugged it into the WW recipe builder though!  Thanks so much to Victoria for her original post, this looks set to become one of my new favourite dinners.

Ingredients

For the roasted tomatoes:

As many tomatoes as you wish – I used half a punnet of cherry and two large plum tomatoes but probably would have added more if they’d been available
½ tbsp olive oil
Tbsp red wine vinegar
Salt, pepper
Generous tsp dried oregano

For the risotto:

½ tbsp olive oil
Red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
Generous pinch of crushed dried chillies
120g risotto rice
100ml white wine
500ml veg or chicken stock
125g ricotta cheese
15g finely grated Parmesan

Serves 2, 8 points per person, 11 pro points per person

Preheat the oven to a low temperature – about 150. Then chop the tomatoes until they are all roughly the same size. I halved the smaller cherry tomatoes and used that as a guide when chopping the larger ones.

Now toss the tomatoes in the oil, vinegar, oregano and plenty of seasoning and roast in the oven for an hour, by which time they should have a lovely rich smell and look fairly dehydrated. You can do this in advance. Divide the tomatoes up – you want roughly two thirds stirred through the risotto and the other third to sprinkle on top.

Time for the risotto. Start by warming the oil and sweating off the onion with the chilli flakes, and then add the garlic and cook until it loses that “raw” smell (being careful not to burn it).

Stir the risotto rice in so it is completely coated in the oil and then add the wine and reduce down almost to nothing. At this stage it is time to start adding the stock, a ladelful at a time. Each time you add some stock add a few of the roasted tomatoes as well (remembering that you’ve set about a third of them aside for garnish). Stir well each time. Continue until the stock has been absorbed and the rice is tender.

Add the ricotta cheese and three quarters of the Parmesan, cover and leave to sit for a couple of minutes.

The risotto that you’re left with will have quite a soupy texture so you may want to cook it out a bit more – but I’d leave it if I were you. Garnish with the remaining tomatoes and Parmesan.


Ricotta on Foodista

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

How the Cook Crumbles

When you were a child how many times do you think you said “When I grow up I’m going to….”

I know for a fact that I intended to eat Coco Pops for breakfast every day, avoid semolina and have proper puddings midweek. My mother was perfectly capable of making fabulous puddings, but she had somehow got hold of the crazy idea that puddings were for High Days and Holidays only. If we wanted sweet after tea during the week, our choice was restricted to yoghurt or fruit. It’s probably one of the reasons I developed a secret biscuit habit.

Anyway, now I am all grown up and I can have puddings any time I like. The problem is that I am a grown up who is endeavouring to fight against her stubborn flab and puddings (other than yoghurt and fruit) can seldom be slotted into the day after an evening meal. And so I tend not to bother with puddings except when I go out.

It was this article that prompted the craving for crumble. A proper autumn fruit crumble with the slightly tart fruit bubbling up through a sweet, oaty topping and a judicious amount of cream. The problem? How to slot a proper sized portion of crumble into my daily points. The solution? Have pudding instead of tea! And so it was that last night, instead of the Moroccan style chicken with olives and sweet potato mash that had been tentatively planned, I baked an apple and blackberry crumble (6 points a portion) and topped it off with a dollop of WW crème fraiche (0.5 points). Not only did it exactly hit the spot but actually, I found it sufficiently filling that I didn’t go to bed hungry which I always assume I will if I don’t eat a “proper” meal. I think D also approved – well, we’re having the rest of the crumble for tea tonight.

In other news, if you’re looking for something to distract you from work, check out the link at the bottom of the page to “The Foodie Blogroll”. It may seem slightly contrary for a dieter to take such a lascivious interest in food blogs, but I am endlessly fascinated by what other people eat – and often find them a source of great inspiration when it comes to planning my own daily meals.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Recipe corner - Mussels steamed with cider and bacon

Right, I think it is high time for another recipe.  And after recent posts on the subject, you would be forgiven for the thinking this has turned into the WW Mussel Eater blog.  But (and I apologise for sounding so evangelical on the subject) mussels are a) fabulously tasty, b) not at all expensive and c) low low low in points.  Oh, and d) it generally takes me so long to get through a bowl that I am not bothered by the thought of any side dishes (although crusty bread to mop up the juices is always good).

I think some people are a wee bit scared when it comes to cooking seafood.  Let's face it, the mussels and oysters of this world are not going to be winning any beauty contests any time soon, and they can look a wee bit daunting when compared with a chicken breast that comes straight from the supermarket all nicely trimmed and wrapped in plastic.  But, fear not!  A little bit of preparation time and mussels are actually one of the speediest things ever to cook - faster than the very fastest of fast food.

So, prior to embarking on the recipe below - and I do urge you to try it, it's the British answer to a traditional moules mariniere and if anything, even nicer, what do you have to do to get the mussels ready for the pot?  Give them a quick scrub, and you'll notice a bit of stringy type stuff protruding from the shell - take a good hold and yank it off - I find this quite therapeutic.  This is what is known as "de-bearding".  If the mussels are wide open prior to cooking and looking generally a bit sad they could well be dead and if so, need discarding. If in doubt though chuck it into the pot.  The surefire way to tell if it is dead is if it is closed when it comes out.  As long as you avoid those, you should be fine.

This recipe is taken from the "Best of British" booklet that was tucked inside of the BBC Good Food magazine, Oct 2010.  The points are calculated based on the nutritional info provided.


Ingredients


small knob of butter
140g smoked bacon - I found this to be 4 decent sized rashers
2 shallots, finely sliced
small bunch of thyme, leaves stripped
1.5kg small mussels, scrubbed and bearded
150ml of cider
2 tbsp double cream

Serves 2, 6.5 points per portion


Heat the butter in a large pan and then fry the bacon until it starts to crisp.  Throw in the shallots and the thyme and cook briefly until softened.

Turn up the heat and then tip in the mussels and pour over the cider.  Cover the pan, give it a good shake, and then leave the mussels to steam for 5-7 minutes shaking occasionally until all the mussels have opened - remember at this point to discard any that are still closed.

Use a slotted spoon to scoop the mussels into bowls and then place the pan back on the heat.  Bring the juices to the boil, stir in the cream and pour the sauces over the mussels.

Enjoy!

Collecting Thoughts

This morning at work we learned that a colleague, who actually sat just across the room from me, had died unexpectedly. He was admitted to hospital on Thursday night and passed away over the weekend.

I didn’t really know the man except to nod hello to, so there is no real sense of loss for me. But when something like that happens – someone is there one day and gone the next, it does make you…pause.

I mean, when I think about the reasons that I want to lose weight what immediately springs to mind? I want to look nice on my wedding day. I want my skinny jeans to fit properly again. I want D to be proud of his wife. I don’t want to feel self conscious eating in public. It’s all about the aesthetics. But shouldn’t the health side be equally important? I want to eat a diet that is going to give me the nutrients I need to make me as healthy as I can be. I don’t want to put my heart and other organs under strain. I want to be fit. I want to live for a long time in the best of health.

Apologies for the slightly morbid start to the week – I just wanted to get this down while it was on my mind. Normal programming will resume shortly.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Recipe corner – Use-Yer-Mussels Spaghetti

Having burbled on about mussels in my last post, here (just for you, Peridot!) is my “recipe” for seafood spaghetti. I use inverted commas because it was more of a chucking together of various ingredients – the outcome, however, was extremely yummy. You could easily adapt this method to any kind of seafood – we happened to have some mussel meat in the freezer that needed using up and just supplemented it with a few prawns. If you were cooking the mussels from scratch, I’d be tempted to use the mussel cooking liquor to loosen the final sauce rather than the pasta water.

Oh, and 75g of spaghetti is a pretty generous portion – you could easily reduce it and thus the points (but I’m greedy!)

Ingredients

3 garlic cloves
3 anchovy fillets
Pinch chilli flakes
Coarse salt
2 tbsp olive oil
200g cherry tomatoes cut into quarters
150g spaghetti
50g mussels (meat only)
50g king prawns

Serves 2, 7 points per per portion

Put the garlic in a pestle and mortar with a decent pinch of salt and squish well. Add the anchovy fillets, patted dry (I used fillets packed in salt, so rinsed them off first, if you use the ones in oil you obviously won’t need to do this) and the chilli flakes – as much or as little as you like, and continue to work into a coarse paste.

Meanwhile, put the spaghetti on to cook in a pan of well salted water.

In a large pan gently heat up the olive oil. Tip in the coarse paste and cook – keep the heat low because you don’t want to burn your garlic. The anchovies will start to “melt” into the oil.

Now bung in the cherry tomatoes and, using the back of a spoon, lightly crush into the oil. Add the prawns and mussel meat and cook gently until the prawns turn pink.

Once the spaghetti is cooked (8-10 mins) drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Add the spaghetti to the pan and toss well in the tomatoes and oil, using the reserved water to loosen slightly (you’ll probably need a couple of tablespoons). Check the seasoning – you probably won’t want any salt what with all those anchovies, but you might find at this stage a bit more chilli would be just the thing – and serve.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

And the scales say....

....2lbs off!  Hurrah!

Getting back to a meeting appears to have done the trick - for the first time in a long time, I planned out a week’s worth of meals and (more or less) stuck to that plan. And the advantages to this are twofold – money saved as well as weight lost. I think I’ve done the pound/pound pun before and it wasn’t funny then so I won’t attempt to revisit it now.

D and I have eaten mussels three times during this past week – a thrown together seafood spaghetti on Thursday, steamed with cider and bacon on Sunday and turned into a rich, saffrony soup on Monday. It might be turning into a bit of an obsession, but it’s a pretty healthy one, the points in mussels are ridiculously low. And it’s a good time of year to buy them – the ones we have had from our local fish place were fantastically plump and sweet.

It’s hard to pick a meal highlight from the week, but I reckon the butternut squash and sage risotto comes pretty close. I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to cook it again.

In other news, I tried out the new Shape chocolate desserts this week as well (you may have seen the advert where two attractive young women attempt to brain an equally attractive young man with a falling flowerpot while eating pudding). Verdict: nice, but probably not two points nice.

All in all, this was a pretty good week – as I said in my last post I wasn’t 100% on programme because of a day out, but other than that one blip, my tracker reads perfectly. So why is it that right up until yesterday evening I had  this niggling voice that telling me to throw it in and go…pig out?  Last night, I was late at the office and the temptation to go and wait for my lift in the pub and to wash down a large bag of crisps with a couple of pints of cider was immense. And I knew that once that line had been crossed it was a stone's throw away from trying to talk D into takeaway when we got home – even though we had the night’s supper, a delicious soup, already cooked. The devil on my shoulder was telling me – you haven’t done enough. If you can’t be 100% perfect then why bother at all?  All or nothing thinking - madness.  I resisted, only just, but still...and I got my reward today.  The pleasure of seeing a decent loss that you have genuinely worked for can't be underestimated.

Oh, and thank you soooo much for wishing me luck after yesterday's post.  The thought of coming on here today and admitting a gain to you lovely people was one of the things that kept that little shoulder devil firmly squished.

Here's to another good week!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Weekend round up

So, the million dollar question this bright Monday morning is does:

6 days of stellar pointing +
4 3 gym trips
1 boozy Friday at the races which started with a glass of fizz at half twelve and ended with rather a lot of Pringles about ten hours later =
A good result at the scales?

Regardless of whether the scales are kind to me tomorrow morning or not, I am pleased with myself this week. It was always my intention to enjoy my day out, the test for me was would I allow it to throw me off for the rest of the weekend. It didn’t - which is progress of sorts. While I made the girls bacon sandwiches on Saturday morning, I restricted myself to tea and toast and was able to come in on points even with a massive portion of delicious homemade prawn curry for tea (which put paid to any residual hangover – I always find a good blast of chilli helps a fuzzy head).

I also (and this is a major achievement for me) eschewed any more alcohol on Saturday and Sunday night. I like nothing more than a civilised glass of wine or six while relaxing in front of weekend television but I decided I had had my fun for the week and stuck to soft drinks. With the result that I actually had a much more productive Sunday than usual! A lesson to be learned there, perhaps.

Hopefully the scales will smile on me tomorrow. Or, at the very least, not burst out into howls of evil laughter.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Recipe corner - roasted squash risotto

D claims to have not been much into cooking before we met. He had three dishes in his repertoire with which to woo the ladies: bangers and mash with onion gravy, prawn curry (origin unknown) and mushroom risotto. Any more than these three dinners and you’d have to go back to the beginning and rotate through again. I sometimes wonder if this was some kind of girlfriend test: love me, be prepared to eat the same three meals for the rest of your life.


Six years after coming under my influence he is shaping up to be a pretty wonderful cook. And although his natural allegiance is to the school of “if in doubt add more butter / cream / oil / all of the above” he is very good about taking account of my points allowance and curtailing the saturated fat content.

The meal we had for tea was a case in point: it has some butter, oil and Parmesan cheese in it but not so much that it makes too large a dent in your daily allowance but enough that it is rich and luxurious and utterly gorgeous. This is his recipe which he has kindly allowed me to share as long as I give him all the credit – which I am happy to do as long as he promises to cook it for me again soon!

Ingredients

Half a large butternut squash, cut into wedges and deseeded
3 garlic cloves, crushed
Tbsp olive oil
8 sage leaves, shredded
2 tsps butter
Large onion, chopped
120g risotto rice
50ml white wine (optional - 1 pro point per person in total)
500ml chicken stock
40g extra low fat soft cheese
40g freshly grated Parmesan
20g pumpkin seeds (optional - 2 pro points per person in total)

Serves 2, 8.5 points per person, 14 pro points per person

Preheat the oven to 200C

In a large ovenproof tray toss the squash in the olive oil, garlic and half the sage leaves. Season well and then roast for 30-45 mins until soft and golden. Once the squash has cooled slightly, scrape the flesh away from the skin into a bowl and lightly mash – keep it reasonably chunky to provide some texture in the risotto.

Now heat the butter in a pan and soften the onion.

Add the rice and stir well to coat in the butter, then add the splash of wine (if using) and allow to bubble off.

Tip in the rest of the sage and season lightly – bear in mind that your stock may be quite salty so be careful. Now add the warm stock a ladleful at a time, giving a good stir at each addition, until the rice is soft but with a touch of bite in the middle of the grain – we found this took about 15 minutes. You may not need all of the stock.

Remove the risotto from the heat and stir through the mashed squash, two thirds of the grated Parmesan and the soft cheese. Cover and allow it to sit for a couple of minutes - this will make it even thicker and creamier so you may want to add a touch more stock before serving to thin it out a little.

Serve sprinkled with the remaining Parmesan and the pumpkin seeds.

Note: this was very rich and would probably feed three people with less enthusiastic appetites, especially if you had a nice, peppery side salad. I also have a feeling that some bacon lardons, chucked in at the beginning, would be lovely in this – but obviously this would up the points.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Weighing In

So my first day back as a fully paid-up, meeting attending, tracking-like-a-demon, Weight Watcher wasn’t stellar. But for the opposite reason you may think.

Firstly, the meeting itself. Some fantastic little old ladies who sat up at the front, cackling throughout and coming up with the kind of lines I would expect to hear from an Alan Bennett Talking Head. Loved it, and bless the Leader for attempting (in vain) to keep them reigned in. The scales were less fantastic – I always find meeting scales to be a little bit meaner than my home set (obviously the fact that I can’t strip nude in the middle of a church hall may have something to do with that) but the number…well, it just is, isn’t it? No point crying over it.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have a knot of anxiety in my stomach all morning – the kind that presses against your diaphragm and makes you feel utterly sick. So, aside from a few cups of coffee (milk = 0.5) I hadn’t consumed anything before the twelve o clock weigh in. Lunch was a 6” turkey and ham on wheat with all the salad fixin’s and a good dollop of light mayo from Subway (=5) plus a bag of Baked crisps (=1.5) and dinner was an absolutely gorgeous dish of salmon (=4.5) with fennel remoulade (=0.5)* and wild rice (=3). Which put me on a total of 15 points – way under the lowest WW recommend I go. Add into the mix 4 bonus points earned at the gym (yay!) and I had created quite an impressive deficit.

Now WW lore tells us that to go way under your points is as foolish as going way over. And the legend of “Starvation mode” is pretty compelling – and an excellent way to justify a weekend blow-out once in a while (“I was shocking my body out of starvation mode! Honest, guv!”) But as a Leader of mine once said to the class, “You never see fat anorexics.” Which may not be the most sensitive way of putting it, but I kind of see her point. Anyway, I am not going to stress mightily about starting the week off with a few too many points in the bank. A trip to York races on Friday, where the wine will no doubt be flowing, should sort that out.

*Not wishing to take credit for someone else’s creation, you can check the original recipe out here – obviously tweaked for WW purposes chez Seren.

Friday, 1 October 2010

A few last holiday shots...

So, the deed is done and on Tuesday morning I will be taking my Monthly Pass and stepping on the Scales of Doom, to quote Peridot.  I suppose I should really come up with my own moniker for them!  I'm going to attempt not to turn this weekend into one, long Last Supper - although since we're out for dinner at our favourite restaurant tonight there will be some indulgence going on.

In the meantime, I just wanted to share a few last food memories from our recent trip to Scotland.

Firstly, we have these fabulous little beauties - can you guess what they are?


Give up?  Haggis nuggets!  Yes, apparently the Scots will eat haggis absolutely any which way.  Here they have been breaded, deep fried and served with a whisky cream sauce.  We also saw a haggis pizza in the local shop.  And when I say saw, I mean spotted in the freezer, purchased and ate it one lunchtime - how could I resist?  I have discovered that I really, really like haggis.  No great surprise, I'm a massive fan of black pudding as well.  This year I will definitely be cooking a traditional Burns' Night supper - although I have a sneaking suspicion that haggis is not the most WW friendly meat stuff in the world.

And next we have...


Yep, more mussels.  But these are particularly special because they were foraged, by D, from the seashore just outside the front door of our caravan.  He set off with a carrier bag and a determined expression, and returned an hour later with this bag of beauties.  We cleaned and de-bearded them and then just steamed them in a little white wine and finished the sauce off with a splash of cream and some garlic.  They were undoubtedly the freshest mussels that I have ever eaten and they tasted incredible. 

So there you have it.  The holiday is well and truly over now, but to be honest, I'm almost looking forward to getting back in the swing of meetings and re-committing 100% to the plan (feel free to refer me back to this in a week when I'm complaining of hunger).  Hope everybody has a fabulous weekend!

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Going backwards to go forwards

When I first started writing on this blog I was attending a weekly Weight Watcher meeting. Soon afterwards, I stopped. I knew the plan so well that I never felt I got anything much out of the meetings – and I decided that paying someone to weigh me every week was just not a good use of resources, so, I switched back to being an online user.

And promptly stopped losing weight.

And then gained some.

Well, more than some. A stone, actually. Which in six months is really…not good.

It’s all very well to want to save a bit of money, and no doubt it would all have turned out fine if I was capable of being honest with myself. But, as it turns out, when it comes to food I can’t be. Honest, that is. I’m very good at kidding myself, I’ve had twenty nine years of practice.

So, I’m tucking my tail between my legs, hanging my head in shame and going back to meetings. If I have to pay £20 a month then so be it – it’s money well spent if it means I’m going to be sticking to the plan and losing weight. Obviously the little bit of ritual humiliation that is climbing on weighing scales in public is the kick up the arse I need.

And making the decision has had an immediately positive effect – last night D and I did a freezer inventory and put together a meal plan for next week which is the most organised we’ve been for a while.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Fish and Trips

It’s a good job we didn’t travel the 340 miles from York to Tobermory for the sole purpose of sampling the local seafood speciality. We had booked a half past seven table at Café Fish but still arrived too late; now Yorkshire is nowhere near as urbane as London but even there half past seven would be regarded as a relatively early table, and yet they had already sold out of not only the squat lobsters that D had been intent on trying, but also langoustines and scallops as well. Obviously the good people of Mull a) are very fond of crustaceans and b) dine at six. Part of the problem might be the lack of pubs. Tobermory is the biggest town on Mull and, aside from two rather scary looking hotel bars, there was only one pub, which doubled up as a pizza restaurant. The media may claim that the Scots are a nation of drinkers, but based on this evidence I would have to dispute that. No deep fried Mars bars to be seen either. Not that I would ever want to eat a deep fried Mars bar, I’m 99% sure. Anyway, the dearth of places to have a pre dinner tipple (or ten) may be what forces the residents to eat so early.

You can’t be too hard on a place which is obviously reliant on an unpredictable third party – in this case, the Sea, to make good their menu. Nothing is frozen at Café Fish, apart from their fishermen, as the waitresses’ T-shirts told us, so what hadn’t been fished that day wasn’t there to eat. And D was slightly consoled when he discovered that one of the main courses was a peat smoked haddock fillet stuffed with squat lobsters, so we did get to have a little taste (my verdict – pretty much the same as a langoustine, but kudos to any seafood that incorporates the word “squat” into its name.)

We never expected our trip to Scotland to be a foodie holiday, so this dinner was to be the only vaguely upmarket meal. And it was very good, relying on the quality of the produce rather than any fancy techniques to produce tasty, hearty food. D’s starter of mussels (he was obviously intent on eating shellfish one way or the other) was absolutely excellent – the mussels themselves fat and sweet.

Mussels in white wine sauce
He also proclaimed the haddock main course to be very good, albeit rich. I thoroughly enjoyed my fish pie, particularly the sharp local Mull Cheddar that crusted the top, but it would have been even better if the scallops promised on the menu had been available for the filling.
Peat smoked haddock stuffed with squat lobsters and baked in cream

Fish pie

We were too full for dessert, although we agreed that had something traditionally Scottish like Cranachan been on the menu we would have stretched a point (and our stomachs). As it was, the choice was rather uninspiring.

Shellfish bisque
The story does not end there however, because, in a last ditch attempt to try some squat lobster, we returned the next day for lunch. Unfortunately, the fishing boat had not yet come in so we were once again thwarted. D consoled himself with another, even larger, bowl of mussels and I had the fish soup of the day. Which turned out to be shellfish bisque and, can I just say, a bowl of absolute deliciousness from start to finish. It was deep and sweet and rich, with a hint of tarragon – not a herb I usually like, but here it was perfect. It was so good that I’ve been scouring the net for bisque recipes since I got back and I intend to attempt to recreate it someday very soon, and am only sorry that I won't be able to go back and do comparison taste tests.  Should you ever find yourself on the Isle of Mull be sure to pop in - and if they happen to have any squat lobsters then I'd appreciate it if you could stick one in the mail for us.

Café Fish
The Pier, Torbermory
Isle of Mull, Argyl
PA75 6NU
Tel. 01688 301253

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Mull: Notes from a small island

The Isle of Mull will forever be notable to me as being the first place that I camped as an adult. And also, given the uncomfortable, damp night I spent, possibly the last. I just really don’t see the point of tents when man has evolved to such an extent that we can build, you know, houses. With foundations. And double glazing. And central heating.

Picture the scene: it is Saturday morning, eight thirty. Rain. Wind. Me – grumpy, tired (having slept a total of about two hours all night), thirsty, cold, getting wetter by the minute. D – grappling with an oversized tent and a grumpy girlfriend. Smug couple in the tent next door cooking sausages on the camp stove, which smell is making my grump even worse. Sharp words may have been exchanged. Eventually, the tent was packed up and bundled into the car. We headed down the road for Tobermory, the largest town on the island, fantasising about a cosy café, a pot of tea and something warming for breakfast.

Well, turns out that no such place exists in Tobermory at nine o clock on a Saturday morning. In silence we tramped the length of the high street – which, in all fairness, isn’t long. I think I may actually have been near to tears at this point and started asking, in fishwifey tones, what exactly the fun part of the whole camping experience was.

And then we noticed a local deli which was a) open, and b) selling takeaway hot drinks. And, oh glory, when we got inside they were also offering bacon rolls. We took our breakfast back to the car and ate in there. The rain continued to, well, rain, the windows steamed up around us and, I swear, that cup of tea and bacon roll may well have been one of the most delicious meals I have ever consumed.

The thing is, once you’ve had a weight problem and got on the “diet” treadmill, some of the joy can get sucked out of eating. I’ve tried so hard to maintain my love of food – it’s a mission statement that’s right up there in my explanatory blog blurb at the top of the page – but the truth is, sometimes the process of meal planning and counting points and playing tit for tat with food swaps just is not fun. I love eating out, and I never try to “count” a meal in a special restaurant, but I can’t deny that I sometimes get guilt pangs before, during and/or after. Sitting in that steamed up car, eating that simple bacon sandwich, for a brief period I did not wonder: “How many points in this?” or question whether it was “good” or “bad”, “naughty” or “nice”. I just had a moment of pure sensory pleasure – the sheer relief at being warm and dry and not shrouded in canvas, as well as the taste of the salty bacon and the scrunch of the crusty roll all washed down with hot, strong tea.

And later I thought back and wondered whether sometimes I need to consciously try and get back to the basics of what food is, away from points, away from a reward system, away from good and bad, but just basically – sustenance and nourishment. That bacon sandwich made me feel nourished physically and emotionally. It was exactly what I needed at that time and in that place.

I don’t quite know what I plan to do with this bacon-related ephiphany yet, but I just wanted to record it for posterity. Also, I want it well and truly noted that I DO NOT like camping.