Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Meal Planning Monday 8

Meal planning didn't quite work out last week as one or other of us was out five nights out of seven.  I've mentioned before that I absolutely hate cooking for one, so when I'm on my own I don't tend to bother with anything more than a microwave meal.  Yes, I know, my foodie credentials get smaller and smaller don't they?  Of course, if I was really organised I'd keep a load of pre-portioned homecooked meals in the freezer for such occasions.  One day, I will be that person.

So, given the recent heat, I've been trying to come up with lighter meals for this week.  I think I'm naturally more of a winter cook (if there is such a thing) as I do find summer meal planning a little bit more difficult.  Or perhaps I just find meal planning difficult full stop because I long to be spontaneous and fabulous.  Ah well.

So, in particular order:

  • Chilli con carne.  Not particularly light or summery, but a firm household favourite
  • Three cheese pasta.  Oh look, another not particularly light or summery dish.  But I've had this in my head for a while now - I want to try and make a version of a childhood favourite that is slightly WW friendly.  Stay tuned for a recipe if it is successful.
  • Chicken Caesar Salad - salad cos it's summer, see?
  • Prawn and scrambled egg stir fry.  
  • Mediterranean style fish stew with crusty bread on the side
  • Sweet mustard salmon with roasted veg
As always, if you're lacking in a bit of meal planning inspiration you can head over to Mrs M's blog for more ideas.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The skinny on...Warburtons sandwich thins

The older I get, the less likely you are to find ostensibly diet products in my kitchen. One of the lessons that I have learned over my years of Weight Watching, of which I still need to remind myself on a regular basis is, I never need as much food as I think I do (i.e. I am fundamentally greedy) and another is that quality is almost always better than quantity. It is for this reason that I have stopped buying low fat plastic spreads – I eat real butter, just in a measured way. And, much as I am a fan of their eating plan, I very seldom purchase Weight Watchers branded products. I just don’t like them that much.

Of course there are exceptions. While my aim is that the recipes and products that I talk about on this blog are healthy-living friendly rather than expressly designed for us slaves to the calorie counting, I do sometimes have to bend my own rules, especially when it comes to dairy. Take the asparagus cream pasta I made last week for example – I used Elmlea, a cream alternative, which, the website tells me, is made of buttermilk and vegetable oils. I sometimes choose reduced fat cheese for cooking with and I almost always eat reduced fat yoghurts rather than the real deal. You pick your battles, depending on your taste.  And I don't think that there is anything wrong with a bit of compromise.

The actual point of this post was to enthuse about a new product I have stumbled across, after years of reading about them on American food and dieting blogs – sandwich thins ( and I should add at this point that I pretty sure that no one in the Warburtons marketing department knows I exist, particularly as that last line sounds a bit like marketeer speak.)
As far as I can see it, the point of the sandwich thin, which is basically…a square, flattish, slimmish bread roll type thing but without a crust (er, am I selling it yet?  See, definitely not in the employ of Warburtons!) is that it minimises the points (calories, grams of carb etc. etc.) that you spend on the receptacle which you are using to convey your sandwich filling to your mouth. Don’t get me wrong. I am a massive fan of bread – proper, yummy, warm, crusty bread. But when I eat a sandwich, I’m more bothered about what is in the middle of the bread. Otherwise I’d just be eating the bread on its own. Well, thickly smeared with butter anyway.

The thins are 3 pro points each and, I think, around 100 calories. And, as I discovered at breakfast time on Sunday, they are just about the right size to accommodate a fried egg (done in just the merest teaspoon of oil). Hurrah.

Friday, 17 June 2011

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

That’s it my friends. It’s all over.

I knew in my heart it must be. But still, a little quiver of hope arose in my breast when I saw Tesco were doing 2 for £2.50 on what I dared to believe was the tail end of the season’s harvest.

Not so. When my shopping arrived on Tuesday evening, the asparagus within was from Peru.

So, looks like British asparagus is done and dusted for another year. And, since I really wouldn’t bother with the Peruvian stuff as a general rule, that’s another ten or so months before I can enjoy it’s rich, greeney goodness again (to me, the best way to describe the flavour of asparagus is just to say it tastes “green”. You can understand why I don’t hold out any hope for a long-term career as a food writer). Anyway, to celebrate and commiserate in equal measure, (and to give me some inspiration next year) here’s a little retrospective of the whirlwind romance of the season.

It started off simple, classic. Egg, lemon, salty cheese, all classic asparagus adjuncts. But this dish was so much more than the sum of its parts.

I could never decide whether to steam or roast my asparagus until the lovely Mr Heston Blumenthal introduced me to a method that gave me the best of both worlds. Oh, and his soft boiled egg and smoked salmon and asparagus soldiers combo was pretty tasty and worked equally well when the smoked salmon was subbed for Parma ham.

Asparagus doesn’t always have to be the star of the show – it doesn’t mind playing a supporting role as long as you keep the accompanying flavours simple with a bit of zing. We’ve had it with simple roast chicken and lemon couscous (which is always a favourite dish in our household at this time of year) and also with some lovely, garlicky lamb and a fresh little potato salad.

And finally, this dish which I cooked the other night despite the fact that Tesco failed to provide me with the Real Deal. It was very simple and very tasty, and is recorded here for posterity so I remember to cook it again. Please don’t judge me for using a cream substitute (here, Elmlea) – there is simply no way I can build 70ml of full fat double cream into my daily points allowance without subsisting on dust for the rest of the day. And the dish itself didn’t appear to suffer overly much for my shortcomings – although I imagine should you use proper double cream you’d end up with something even more luxurious and decadent.

Asparagus Cream Pasta


1 bunch of asparagus
142ml reduced fat double cream substitute
2 small garlic cloves, peeled and slightly bruised
40g Parmesan, half finely grated, the other shaved
200g pasta

Serves 2, 19 pro points per serving

Put a large sauce pan of salted water on to boil. Meanwhile, snap the woody ends from your asparagus and slice off the tips.

Boil the asparagus stalks for about five minutes – I reckon that slightly overcooking them makes them softer and easier to blend later on.

Remove the stalks from the water and drain. Tip your pasta into the water, bring back to the boil and set a timer for 10 minutes.

Now put your cream into a small saucepan, add your garlic cloves and bring slowly up to the boil. When it gets there remove from the heat, stir through the finely grated Parmesan and put the resulting mixture into a blender along with the asparagus stalks. Whizz up into a beautiful pale green sauce. You could remove the garlic but I wouldn’t bother – it doesn’t overpower by any means.

2 minutes before the pasta is ready, thrown the tips into the boiling water.

Drain the pasta and asparagus tips, stir through the sauce over a gentle heat to warm through. Taste for seasoning – Parmesan is quite salty so you will need to be judicious with the salt, but I like plenty of scrunches of black pepper here, and then serve with the Parmesan shaving strewn over the top.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Lunch at the Ledbury

It was actually writing restaurant reviews that first got me thinking about blogging. When D and I first started venturing out to higher end restaurants, I started writing reviews - just to amuse ourselves you understand. I wasn't of the opinion then (and am certainly not now) that I had anything particularly new or innovative to add to the milieu. But I have a decent palate and, more importantly, a fully paid up membership to the club of Food Obsessiveness, which means I am endlessly interested in the ways in which chefs combine ingredients and utilise techniques both classic and modern and I endlessly wish to communicate that interest to other people, whether or not they share it.

This blog is not a restaurant review blog. I don't eat out enough for a start. And if I did eat out more I'd probably be even plumper than I already am. But I hope that you will indulge me the odd swerve from the path of WW righteousness once in a while (!) for some full on Food Porn.

We went to The Ledbury a couple of Saturdays ago you see - two Michelin stars and much praise from People Who Know. And I really, really wanted to write something witty and fabulous to pay tribute to such a gorgeous meal. But when it came down to trying to write some notes about it, all I found myself scribbling was “Food = VG”. Then I started doodling daisies. Yeah, Fay Maschler must really be trembling in her boots.

But I really don’t know how to be more eloquent about it. After every single course I wanted to send a request back to the chef to send me out a second, supersized version. After every single course I wanted to pick up the plate and give it a damned thorough licking. In fact, D succumbed to this, perfectly understandable, urge at one point (well, ran his finger round and licked that, almost the same thing) and got caught out by the charming Aussie sommelier. Who laughed, but agreed with D’s assertion that there can be no greater compliment to the chef than to risk turning oneself into an object of ridicule in a crowded dining room.

I suppose (and this is by no means a criticism) it wasn’t desperately exciting. And exciting is a dangerous adjective when applied to food: exciting can mean tongue tingling new combinations of flavours, can mean theatre and fireworks, or it can mean (and I have said this in both The Fat Duck and Noma – regarded as two of the world’s best restaurants) “I just don’t like this.” There were no dizzying highs, when I felt sure that the dish in front of me would be remembered for ever as one of the pinnacles of my foodie experiences. But equally, there were no dips down from the level of “Wow, this tastes so gooooood. Waiter, bring me a bucket of them there rabbit beignets and don’t spare the pine salt”.


Picking a favourite dish was tough.  My Dad was all about the meat: he couldn’t decide between the melting pork cheek which was slow cooked with liquorice and spices, and served with a smear of bitter chicory and little spots of soft, honeyed sherry jelly, or the equally tender beef short rib which was accompanied by a cloudy mouthful of buttery mash.  I mean, pomme puree. 

Pork cheek!


 But D and I were very taken with a fantastic plate of mackerel – a flame grilled fillet accompanied by a little mackerel tartare wrapped in cucumber gel, celtic mustard and shiso.  I also think an honourable mention needs to go to the scallop tartare which was served with a horseradish snow and managed to be sweet and cool and fiery all at the same time.



Because we were having the tasting menu, there was no element of choice as to what we were served.  Perhaps that is why I remember the puddings as slightly underwhelming: the caramelised banana tatin with peanut parfait was lovely, but I’m always slightly disappointed when I have a pudding that is not chocolate.  The three of us did sterling work on the impressive cheese board though, picking fourteen of the twenty odd on offer between us, to the slight bemusement of the waitress who had evidently assumed we would want one cheese course between three.  D fixed her with a somewhat steely glare.  “We like cheese,” he said.



Of course it was expensive. You don’t go for a lunch at a top London restaurant, order the tasting menu and attendant wine flight and expect any change out of can’tbringherselftosayanactualfigure quid. But I believe they do a very reasonable set lunchtime deal which I will definitely be trying to persuade friends along to next time I’m down in London. I’ll be aiming for a secluded table in the corner as well, so I can indulge in plenty of plate licking without the risk of being spotted.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

My Elephant

This morning as I was getting dressed, I pulled out a top that I hadn’t worn in a while despite the fact I am fond of the colour and the fit. As I stood there, still rather bleary (it was six o clock after all), I remembered that the reason it had ended up at the back of the wardrobe was that the cut of the neck and shoulders leave my bra straps rather visible. Which isn’t really a big deal these days (sometimes it is positively de rigueur) but I had relegated the top to weekend wear only because I was concerned that the whole bra strap on display look wasn’t suitable for work. I went through the whole thought process in my mind. Then I put the top on reasoning, “I like this top, I want to wear it and that whole bra thing probably isn’t that bad. I’ll just do some subtle hoiking if it becomes a problem”.

And of course, now I’m sitting here, painfully aware that I am displaying greying bra straps to the world and his boss. And his boss too. And yes, I did not even bother to put on a nice bra at any point in this decision making process.

For those of you struggling to see the connection between whether or not my underwear is visible and food / WW then here we go. I am a supposedly intelligent person. And yet I make the same mistakes over and over and over again. Not only that, but sometimes (as this morning) the logical part of my brain chips in to say, “Hang on a minute, is that really such a good idea?” and then some other entirely irrational part notes the objection and goes ahead anyway.

Every time I’ve made a bad food decision, every time I’ve eschewed the gym in order to loll on the couch watching old episodes of “Charmed”, somewhere there has been a voice screaming “Noooooo! Don’t do it!” in a slightly melodramatic manner. But you only have to look at my recent track record (particularly in relation to exercise) to see that the voice is being well and truly drowned out.

And I don’t think it is just me. My brother was telling me about this self help book the other week which is all about instigating change. The analogy that the book uses is that your logical self is a Rider upon the Elephant of your emotional self (bear with). If the logical Rider and emotional Elephant want to go in different directions, then the Elephant will almost always win because it is stronger. The Rider therefore has to come up with strategies that will allow him to retain control and the Elephant to remain calm and biddable. For example, shaping the outside environment – in a weight loss scenario this might mean getting rid of anything in the house that will trigger overeating - or setting small, achievable goals that will not spook the Elephant but will give it something tangible to walk towards. And so on and so forth until the analogy is stretched beyond all recognition.

It’s an analogy I recognise and like. So much so that I’ve invested in a little silver elephant charm for my Pandora to remind me to keep control of my Elephant. Getting the mental stuff right is, I reckon, a good 99% of the battle.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to nip to the ladies to rearrange my clothing. Again.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Meal Planning Monday 7

The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed the lack of a meal planning post last week. Well, there are no excuses. Or rather, there are plenty but they are so pathetic that if I type them out I risk losing all remaining self respect. In the end it didn’t matter too much because I was struck down by a horrible stomach lurgie towards the end of the week which meant for several days I could face nothing more exotic than plastic cheese slices on toast.

This week needs to be different – poor D will revolt if he doesn’t start getting proper meals.

So. Tonight we have peppered chicken with roasted courgettes and cherry tomatoes and sun dried tomato and garlic couscous.

On Sunday I want to do a proper roast dinner. I love roast dinners and we don’t have them nearly enough. A recent post by the very lovely Jenny has put me in the mood for a slow roast pork shoulder, which I’ll serve with all the trimmings.

Then in between: they’ll be prick and ping for me one night when D is out carousing (much as I adore cooking I absolutely loathe cooking for one. I think it dates back to a rather miserable period in my life when I was living alone in an absolute hovel where the kitchen was so disgusting I refused to use it other than to make tea and toast.) I’ll be making what might well prove to be our last asparagus dish of the season, a rather delicious and sinful looking asparagus cream pasta from the BBC Good Food magazine website. We have a couple of squashes that need using, so I’m thinking of revisiting this rather lovely risotto recipe (and updating it to include the pro points value in the process). And alongside said squashes, there are some slightly mournful looking new potatoes languishing in our storecupboard, so I think I’ll keep it simple and serve up the salmon, roasted new potatoes and crushed, minted peas that I cooked a couple of weeks ago.

Finally, D was muttering something about having a yen for whitebait at the weekend which I think would be a fantastic Friday night supper – simply dusted with seasoned flour and fried in a little oil and then served with some mayonnaise for dunking. I don’t know yet whether I’ll be able to get hold of any, but I’m going to have a go.

Pop over to Mrs M's blog for more meal planning fun.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Cheek to Cheek

It may not really be the weather for it (yes, there has been sunshine in the North, Peridot!), but we had a delicious stew for tea last night from a recipe by Mark Hix. Pork cheeks, slow cooked with chorizo until they were on the verge of disintegrating entirely into the port enriched gravy, then served with a glossy sprinkle of broad beans which had been tossed in a little butter. The original recipe is here if you are interested; I tinkered with it a little to make it a little more WW friendly and more suitable for the slow cooker I was planning to use.

The point of the post is, though, have you cooked pork cheeks yet? And if not, why not? Once you finished reading this, get yourself down to the Waitrose meat counter, or indeed, your local butcher (should you be so fortunate as to have one) and acquire some. And yes, I am being bossy – but I promise you’ll thank me for it. Unlike other cuts of meat which have been proclaimed cheap by “sleb” chefs (which causes everyone goes out and buys them so that the price rockets), pork cheeks are genuinely, rock bottomely cheap. A couple of your English pounds will get you plenty enough for four portions.

Pork cheeks benefit from long, slow cooking - treat them with a bit of care and languor and the meat will be gloriously tender. As I mentioned, I used my slow cooker – eightish hours on the low setting and they were perfect. But equally, we have cooked them in the oven for a few hours which worked perfectly well. And in terms of Weight Watchers, I reckon (from information garnered on t’Internet) they are about 3 pro points per 100g raw meat – which is roughly the same as pork shoulder. Not at all bad. I’m currently thinking they would work well in a curry (vindaloo is, I believe, traditionally made with pork) or perhaps with some Chinese style spicing…yep, I definitely feel a trip to Waitrose coming on…

Monday, 6 June 2011

Beside the seaside

I ended my week of freedom with a trip to Scarborough with D. Now, there is a town that I will forever associate with childhood. Back when I was younger and lived within spitting distance of the M25, North Yorkshire was a regular family holiday destination. Being your typically insular London-born child, I subscribed wholeheartedly to the belief that everything north of the Watford Gap (also known as “The Norf” in East Londonish) was a peculiar, foreign place. The idea of one day living there would have seemed laughable. How times have changed. Not only do I now live in the Norf but I am preparing to marry a Norferner and if we decide to have children, they may very well grow up with Norfern Accents. How very odd.

Anyway, Scarborough. They say that the sense of smell is the one most closely linked to memory, and there is definitely something about the scent of the British seafront that carries me straight back to being a child again. The combination of saltwater, hot fat and melting sugar with just a whiff of fish that has been left too long in the sun – there’s nothing else like it in the world is there? And that’s even before you’ve factored in the accompanying soundtrack: the mournful squall of the seagulls, and incessant plinkity-plonk of the arcade games.

We ate sugared doughnuts, fresh out of the oil and blisteringly hot. And we shared a portion of proper chip shop chips while sitting on a bench looking at the North Sea. Delicious and nostalgic; tastes which still have the power to transport me backwards in time so that for a moment or two I am that little girl again rather than her older, fatter, sillier, sadder counterpart.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

I'm Still Here...

Radio silence has ensued the last week or so while I've been busy introducing my five month old nephew to the delights of Yorkshire. We had a fantastic meal at The Ledbury last week which I want to write about, and I'm keen to get back into the swing of meal planning - I have dress fittings looming!

Speaking of meal planning, some bright soul has created a website that does it all for you - randomly generating meals for a week in a single click: Grocery List. Clever stuff. If BBC Good Food or some other similar faction could do a British version I, for one, would be extremely grateful.

Enjoy the sunshine!

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