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.


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.


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

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
0207 386 1847