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.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

And back to reality...

Why are holidays always so short? 

Back from a lovely week in Scotland - and a weekend of hiding at home in my pyjamas pretending the outside world didn't exist.  Sadly back at work now - but also back to my beloved blog.  Seriously, I am surprised at how often I thought about it while away, with ideas for posts popping into my head at all sorts of random moments.

So, once I've caught up with all you lovely people, and uploaded some photos, I will be back!

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Adventures in pizza making

Oh, pizza. How I love it, in all its forms. From the thick, gooey, doughy hunks that make the perfect post-pub takeaway (Domino’s I’m looking at you – and yes, I’ll probably be in touch soon) to the actual “proper” stuff that they eat in Italy, with a crisp crust stretched thin and an elegantly restrained amount of topping.

I’m a regular patron of the Pizza Express chain and I generally order the same thing – the Soho, which is essentially a margherita topped with rocket, Parmesan shavings and a drizzle of olive oil, and at 13 WW points it is workable as a dinner with a little bit of austerity earlier in the day. Pizza Express has recently challenged its diners to come up with a new pizza topping – and while I don’t think I’ll ever be able to improve on my beloved Soho, the prospect of a £5000 prize AND a place on the Pizza Express menu was enough to make me pause for thought.

I wanted to do something that had a recognisable culinary link to Italy and traditional Italian cooking. And, for some reason, my thoughts turned towards a pasta dish that D cooked about a year ago which consisted of ravioli filled with a roasted butternut squash puree, subtly flavoured with amaretti biscuits, and then tossed in a sage butter. Apparently this is a dish most famously found in the Cremona region of Italy, and is traditionally called tortelli di zucca.

I liked the idea of squash roasted with sage on top of a pizza. I thought that adding amaretti biscuits might be a step too weird alongside all the other flavours that I would need, but liked the idea of a bit of crunchy texture, so added a sprinkle of toasted flaked almonds just before serving. I was a bit concerned that the sweet squash would fight with a sweet tomato base, so made this a pizza bianchi, flavouring ricotta with roasted garlic, a touch of lemon zest and a hint of Parmesan cheese before spreading it on the pizza base (shop bought, much to my chagrin – I must try and make my own dough at some point) and topping it with the roasted squash, some roasted red onion (to add another savoury note) and, of course, mozzarella.


It looks a bit of a mess but I'm still rather proud - it tasted yummy, although was quite rich.  I didn't actually calculate the points but I'm guessing it wouldn't be too terrible if you used half fat mozzarella (which I've found melts just as well as the normal stuff) and didn't roast the squash and onion with much oil.

D had a go too and his was far prettier than mine:

Behold the pizza puttanesca - also based on a classic pasta dish.  The sauce was absolutely delicious - baby plum tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies and a touch of chilli all whizzed together and then topped with mozzarella (of course) and more anchovies and olives.  We decided it was a bit of a marmite pizza - if you love those strong, salty flavours then likely you would love this, but if not it would be a bit much.

Whether or not we win the £5000, it was fun to do and I must say I am rather inspired to do some more creating - although I've promised myself that I will actually make my own dough next time!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

This Time Next Week…

…Where will you be?

I only ask, because I won’t be around – I’ll be in sunny (or otherwise!) Scotland on holidays and I’m getting a little bit over excited.

It’s the first holiday we’ve taken this year – unless you count the two weeks of cat sitting up the road - and it’s a little bit different to the type of trip we generally take. We’re both a little obsessed with food (as you may have noticed) and we have a keen interest in art and culture (although you wouldn’t have guessed it from the pile of Heat magazines that I keep hidden under the bed!) so we tend to opt for city breaks. This autumn we’re eschewing that and are getting back to nature! No Michelin star dinners or posh hotels with complementary towelling robes for us – nope, we going to spend one night in a tent on an island and six in a static caravan by the beach.

I think a week of fresh air, walking and relaxing will be exactly what we need – we’ve both been a bit tired and jaded lately and I think some of that ennui has probably come through in this blog – it’s certainly the reason why my WWing has been so hit and miss. Freshness, simplicity and plenty of exercise (we’ll be taking walking boots and cagoules and hitting the trails regardless of the weather) will hopefully give my 30 for 30 challenge a good boost – even if it just manages to get me into a slightly more self nurturing state of mind.

Of course, it’s not all going to be beans on toast – check out the gorgeous looking Café Fish on the island of Mull where we’ll be dining on Friday night. The area of Scotland we’re sojourning in is famous for its fresh seafood, so we are hoping to persuade a friendly local fisherman to sell us something fresh on the boat to cook in a fire pit. And, naturally, there will be the odd wee dram of whisky!

Monday, 6 September 2010

Diet Demons - 1, Foodie – 0

Fortunately, the bright shiny ticker I have installed at the bottom of this blog (for my 30 for 30 challenge) doesn’t move backwards. So, according to that I am still in a neutral position – no loss, no gain. The scales tell a different story. It turns out, that if you spend a long weekend doing nothing more strenuous than sitting in a hot tub while drinking far many bottles of wine with your closest female friends, you’re not going to lose weight. Especially when you compound this drinking with the post-drinking eating (McDonalds breakfast – I’m looking at you).

But, onwards! There’s still plenty of time to make inroads into the excess flabulousness between now and (shhh!) the big-birthday-that-I’m-trying-not-to-think-about.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

“New Year” Resolutions

The 1st September always seems to represent a second New Year for me. I suppose it is a throwback from school and college days. Anyway, although I’ve written before about the futility of attaching too much importance to start dates, nevertheless, I would be lying if I didn’t say I had a little frisson of…something this morning. The feeling of a page being turned.

So, I’m going to take this opportunity to set out an actual weight loss goal. I started this blog because I love writing and I love food and I love writing about food and I wanted an outlet for that. But it’s becoming more and more apparent that this could also be a wonderful weight loss tool if used properly – an added level of accountability.

In sixteen weeks, Christmas will be nearly upon us – and also my 30th birthday (a milestone I’m doing my best to forget). In sixteen weeks I would like to have lost 30 pounds. Yep, I’m starting a 30 for 30 campaign. I don’t propose to give myself any particular reward for reaching this goal, nor will there be a punishment for not reaching it, but it is a target to work towards.

I have all the tools I need to do this. I know the Weight Watchers plan inside out and back to front. I enjoy cooking (I need to remind myself of this sometimes; I genuinely enjoy it but I do find it easy to get sucked into a routine of takeaways and convenience food if I’m tired and low) and I have access to potentially thousands of recipes through the internet, magazines and cookery books. I am a member of a good gym with a pool and plenty of exercise classes. Yes, I have social commitments to look forward to, but there is no reason that a night out or a weekend away should mean total derailment. I have a blog where I can come to record success or to vent as needs be, and where I can keep a record of the kind of delicious food that I am able to eat and still see the scales drop. What reason is there to fail?

So happy “New Year” to all, and I hope all of us achieve some of our targets in the months ahead.

Edited to add: in a fit on enthusiasm I've created a 30 for 30 challenge ticker which is down at the bottom of the blog page.  Now all I have to do is make that pretty butterfly move!