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).

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.