Thursday, 24 November 2011

Recipe corner - Exceptionally easy brown soda bread

So, bread. The idea of making bread scares me a little bit which is odd because usually I am quite gung-ho about cooking in general. And I have been baking since I was knee high to a grandmother. But bread? Nope, slightly wary.

It was our recent trip to Roganic that inspired me to take a little baby step into the world of bread making. We were served the most delicious brown soda rolls while we were there (see below, second from front), dense and sweet.
The Roganic bread basket
I knew (or rather, had a vague idea) that soda bread didn’t involve any messing around with yeast and suchlike. So I took to the net and lo, found a recipe for a brown soda bread by the Irish Goddess that is Rachel Allen. And last weekend I dusted off my beautiful Kitchen Aid (which I have not named, no, really, I haven’t), and set to making the most basic version.

 As you’ll see the result is somewhat…well, let’s be honest, rustic. A little misshapen, a little clumsy looking. But I suspect that no baker has ever been prouder of a loaf. It tasted surprisingly good as well, especially considering how little effort was involved. We ate it on Sunday evening with some good Italian cheese – and I suspect D’s enjoyment was only very slightly marred by me saying, “I made bread!” in a wondering tone after every bite.


225g wholemeal flour
225g plain flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 egg
375-400ml buttermilk*

(*Instead of buttermilk I used normal skimmed milk with a hefty squirt of lemon juice. Set this aside for about ten minutes before using.)

Serves 12, 4 pro points per serving

Preheat the oven to 220.

Sift together the flours, salt and bicarbonate of soda in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre.

In another bowl, whisk the egg into the buttermilk. Pour most of the liquid (I went for about two thirds) into the flour mixture. Using your hands with your fingers outstretched like a claw OR the dough hook of a beloved food mixer, bring the flour and liquid together, adding more liquid as necessary (I didn’t use the full 400ml in the end). The dough should be quite soft, but not too sticky.

Turn onto a floured work surface and gently bring it together into a round about 4cm deep. Or, as per the picture above, something vaguely approximating a puddle shape. Cut a deep cross on the top (this is to let the fairies out!)

Place on a lightly oiled baking tray and bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 200 and bake for a further 30 minutes.

The loaf is cooked when it sounds slightly hollow when tapped on the base. Although to be honest I spent quite a long time knocking it wondering exactly how that sounds. Maybe a seasoned bread baker would have less difficulty. In any case, the timings provided seemed to work well.

This is best eaten on the day it is baked, preferably still warm from the oven and oozing with butter. However, we stored the loaf under a tea towel and ate some the following evening and it was still fine for dunking in soup.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Mirror, mirror

Warning: intense navel gazing and retrospection follows. Avoid if such things make you feel slightly nauseous – but return later in the week to learn how to make the Easiest Bread In The World™.

So. Two separate things got me pondering last week.

The first was that I was staying in a hotel in London and I found that I was discombobulated by all the mirrors in the room. Seriously, everywhere I looked I could see my reflection – even when I was in the shower. It made me uncomfortable.

Then, on Saturday I went to the hairdressers for the first time in ages and the prospect of having to sit and stare at myself for an hour made me reflexively grope for the war paint in a state of mild panic.

And it made me realise that I just don’t look in the mirror very much anymore. In our flat we have one in the bathroom, of course, and a full length jobby in our bedroom but the former shows only one’s topmost bits and the latter is placed in such a way that it is not particularly easy to get a look at yourself unless you stand on the bed. Which I don’t.

I’ll usually give myself a quick once over in the morning, and I’ve got a compact in my handbag so that I can do the old spinach on teeth check if I’m out and about and I’ve just eaten spinach. But I just don’t spend a lot of time looking in the mirror, so I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my appearance. I wonder if that is one of the reasons that my weight loss efforts tend to be a little half hearted.

Most women can’t dwell on their appearance without the issue of body image rearing its head. It’s just a fact that a lot of us use our weight and our size as one of the defining measures as to whether we look OK or not. If you are overweight, it’s sometimes difficult to hold your head up and be proud of your appearance if every single measure of attractiveness that society uses tells you that you’re at the bottom of the scale. It tends to puncture your vanity.

When I was in my early twenties, I went through a stage of being very vain indeed. It was just after I had left university. I had lost a few stone and was in one of my rare thin phases. I got my first job working in a warehouse where most of the staff were male and in their thirties or forties and girls, particularly young, pretty, naive ones, were thin on the ground. The work itself was a mind numbingly mundane and so myself and the other girls in the office occupied quite a lot of time flirting with the warehouse men. Perhaps for the first time ever I felt attractive, validated by the male interest. I would get up at stupid o clock in the morning to style my hair and apply make up before work. I lived in high heels, despite the fact I had to walk several miles a day to get from the station to the office.

A decade later I have gone completely in the other direction and, actually, that’s not an entirely good thing. Of course, you should feel validated by something other than how many whistles you’ve collected on your daily totter around the warehouse, and now, older and wiser and in a far more suitable job, I do. But equally, taking a bit of an interest in your appearance isn’t necessarily just about vanity but about believing that you, yourself, are worthy of a little bit of time and effort. You’re worth the five minutes it takes to whack on a bit of lip gloss, or apply body lotion after the shower, or paint your toenails. And, equally (because I had to make this a bit about dieting, right?), you are worth the little bit of time and effort it takes to plan healthy, sensible meals, track your points, and generally look after your health.

You’re worth it. I’m worth it. And it’s definitely worth a little bit of concerted effort so that the mirror can become a friend rather than an object of fear and loathing.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Meal planning Monday 18

November continues, grey and miserable and unremitting. I have perked up a bit though. Firstly, I had a much needed haircut on Saturday which I absolutely love (it’s all short and curly now, a bit like a poodle only, er, not) and I got an email from the lovely Lauren to say that I had won her chocolate giveaway! How can one be grumpy in the face of funky poodle hair and chocolate? Plus, a new series of The Killing started on Saturday night. My cup runneth over.

Meal planning recently as been as much based around the contents of the freezer as possible. This is a) to make room for all the Christmas goodies that I will no doubt buy despite the fact we will then end up eating mini sausage rolls in February and b) because money, as always, is too tight to mention. Especially with the aforementioned Christmas coming up. So the rough plan for this week is as follows:

  • Broccoli and blue cheese soup with home made soda bread
  • Spaghetti Bolognese (the other half of the sauce that we had a couple of weeks ago – I might ring the changes by making this a pasta bolognese bake)
  • Sticky pork belly with noodles and bok choi
  • Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs with toasted English muffins (one of the ultimate comfort dishes identified in my last post)
As always, head over to Mrs M’s for more menu planning.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

In which I am grumpy

Picture from
I was just flexing my fingers to write about how much of a grump I am today, how I nearly threw a full on temper tantrum this morning before setting off for the station this morning (sample dialogue: “Don’t wanna go to work. Don’t wanna.”) and how all I want to do is sit in bed and swig red wine and read trashy novels when something compelled me to check the archives and look! It appears I was feeling almost exactly the same at this time last year!

It’s official my friends – I’m allergic to November and should therefore definitely be allowed to pass all thirty days of it in a state of hibernation. But since the Department has cracked down on sick leave I’m going have to come up with an alternate plan.

Incidentally, I note that last year I self prescribed risotto, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and chicken soup. So that’s half of next week’s menu plan sorted then.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Come dine with us!

So, Saturday evening we cooked a meal for my parents. You know how whenever you watch Jamie or Nigella and they talk about how they like really informal dinner parties where everyone just helps themselves from a steaming platter of something in the middle of the table? Yeah, that’s pretty much the opposite of how we do dinner parties. We like it formal. Multiple courses with matching wines. Cheese before pudding. 

This does mean that most of Saturday and a couple of precious Friday evening hours were spent in the kitchen, but I really don’t mind. I do honestly love cooking and I love cooking for other people. Although I do find sharing a kitchen with D to be quite a stressful business. He is a very precise cook whereas I am more chaotic and clumsy and tend to lose basic motor skills when feeling under pressure.

Particular highlights included D’s fantastic mussel and saffron soup – which is a recipe I’d love to blog for you if a) he lets me and b) it works out as reasonably WW friendly, and a rabbit in mustard sauce which I think mentioned in a meal planning post a couple of weeks ago when we did a practice run. The recipe we used for the rabbit is here – and I would recommend giving it a go if you can bring yourself to eat Bugs. Although the ingredient list makes it sound like it is going to be overpoweringly mustardy, it actually bakes down to quite a mellow flavour.

In the interests of accountability, I should make it clear that not a morsel was pointed. But a midweek Weigh In (capital W capital I) this morning showed me only half a pound up from the official number on Thursday, which I take to mean that not too much damage has been done.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Notes from a big city – part the second

So when last we saw our hero and heroine they were on a train back to Romford with full tummies and a couple of hip flasks full of Old Pulteney liqueur. (Extended parenthesis: I don’t think I mentioned the hip flasks in my previous post – suffice to say, D had decided to indulge himself and his best man with a small, metal container from which they would be able to swig alcohol on a forthcoming camping trip. I’m not quite sure why either.)

But back to the important part of this post which is that the following day, once tummies had been sufficiently deflated, they…we (maintaining a third person pronoun will end up making me confused) headed back out (in?) to the metropolis in order to have lunch at Roganic.

Roganic claims to be a pop up restaurant – which I feel is up for debate given that it is going to be kicking around for a couple of years. This suggests to me not so much popping as….well, just being. But it doesn’t matter because it is only right that the capital gets to appreciate the genius of chef Simon Rogan and his talented team. Rogan has a restaurant up in a remote corner of the Lake District called L’Enclume, where D and I enjoyed one of the finest meals we have ever had in this country. It has one Michelin star but I am fairly sure that if it were in London it would have at least two. It deserves three. It is absolutely amazing. If you are ever up North then go. We were hoping for more of the same at Roganic and we were not disappointed in the least.

Now, I should be clear that if you are not the type of person who thinks that the word “interesting”, when applied to food, is a compliment then this is probably not your sort of place. Does that sound patronising? I do hope not. I merely mean that there are some people, close friends and relatives of mine among them, who want their food simple and their combinations classic. And to be honest, for my last meal on Earth I’d probably be more interested in bangers and mash than a plate of wizardy pokery and edible doo-dahs. But D and I also love going to restaurants where the chef is going to challenge our taste buds. Simon Rogan’s food is definitely different – some of the ingredients he uses you won’t even have heard of. But you won’t care because they taste so good.

I won’t bore you by detailing all the ten courses we chomped through. I will, however, share some of the pictures with you because the dishes were as beautiful as they were delicious. Also, they were taken by D so they are of a slightly higher quality than the risible food photography to which you are usually subjected.

A couple of particular highlights for me were the chargrilled langoustine (pictured fourth above) which was served with yoghurt and elderberries (prawn! With yoghurt! And fruit! Crazy, but utterly amazing) and the bilberries with dried caramel and iced lemon thyme (sixth above) which was as fresh and sweet as…a river nymph. But it is hard to pick a favourite moment in the face of such consistent quality.

The staff were absolutely lovely as well, happy to chat and engage throughout – although I felt a little bit sorry for the waitress who asked us what our favourite course was and was subjected to a whole five minutes of earnest debating. Oh, oh and the butter for the amazing bread was served on a stone that looked like a potato! I think I have a picture of that as well, actually…

So, Roganic. Do go along. And go to L’Enclume as well while you’re at it – I promise you’ll thank me for it.  Just make sure it's within, er, two years (or so) of reading this or it may well have popped off...

19 Blandford Street
0207 4860380

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Meal planning (let’s pretend that it is) Monday 17

Do I start every single one of these posts by saying how quickly Monday has come around? Shall I try and ring the changes this week? Or just revert to formula? But it’s true…I feel like I’ve only just finished one meal plan before the next hoves into view. And much as I love the idea of meal planning, the reality is that as soon as I sit down (proverbial) pencil in hand, every idea and recipe vanishes from my head and I wonder how many times I could get away with serving up beans on toast. It’s a bit of a far cry from when D and I first moved in together (nearly seven years ago – wow!) I went into full on 1950s housewife mode - we probably didn’t eat the same thing once for the first six months, the tiny kitchen was always absolutely spotless and I made his sandwiches for him every evening. How times change.

Anyway. This week we’re planning round a few things. My lovely parents are coming for dinner on Saturday evening, so that menu is being organised separately – it will involve a repeat of the delicious rabbit dish that we cooked a couple of weeks ago (that I never got round to blogging – bad food blogger!). We always over cater, so we’ll probably have plenty of leftovers to get us through Sunday.

Tomorrow, D is out which normally means prick and ping but it’s the night before weigh in so I want to keep things quite light and low sodium – I’m thinking eggs of some description on toast.

Thursday we have a few jobs that we want to do (and a poor, neglected gym to visit) so it needs to be quick and easy – step forward slow cooker Bolognese. I think spag bol has popped up on a number of meals plans recently and it always seems to get bumped, poor thing. But I can bung all the ingredients into the slow cooker on Wednesday evening while my eggs are cooking, switch it on Thursday morning and quick and easy tea when we get in – perfect.

Friday – shopping and prep to do for Saturday evening, so again speed and simplicity is our watchword. I’ll probably just bung a pizza in the oven to be perfectly honest.

Not so much a meal plan this week then as a succession of throw togethers. You could always try checking out Mrs M’s blog for something more sophisticated…

Recipe corner – Braised fennel with butter and parmesan

It goes a bit against the Weight Watchers grain to advocate a vegetable side dish which is higher in points than the chunk of protein that is sitting alongside. Vegetables are zero point under the WW regime which means that the hungry WWer can be inclined to develop the mindset of vegetables as bulking agent rather than vegetables as delicious thingummies in their own right.

Well, no more. As delicious as the slow roast pork shoulder was on Sunday evening, this braised fennel dish was the undoubted shining star of the meal. We had originally intended to make some roast potatoes as well but neither of us could be bothered when it came to it and to be honest, I really didn’t miss them. Yet again proof that I never need as much food as I think I do to be satisfied.

This very simple but fabulous recipe is by the quite lovely Simon Hopkinson and the original can be seen on the BBC website. The only tweaks I have made are to reduce the amount of butter and Parmesan slightly – not by much, mind you, but it has shaved a couple of points of per portion. The point of the dish would be lost without the buttery, salty richness provided by these ingredients, but I should add that even in the original recipe, the delicate sweetness of the fennel is enhanced rather than overwhelmed.


1 large fennel bulb, cut in half lengthwise and trimmed
40g butter
4 tbsp vermouth
40g Parmesan cheese, finely grated

Serves 2, 7 pro points per portion

Pre heat the oven to 170 degrees while you prep the fennel.

Put the butter in an ovenproof dish and stick in the oven to melt (or, conversely, melt the butter and pour into the dish). Season the fennel halves and then add to the butter, cut side down along with the vermouth and the trimmings. Season the whole well with salt and pepper. Cover loosely with foil and roast in the oven for half an hour.

One the thirty minutes have passed remove from the oven and turn over (trying to maintain the structural integrity of the fennel bulb while doing so!) Return, covered, to the oven for a further thirty minutes or until the fennel is tender.

Tip the trimmings and cooking juices through a fine sieve into a small saucepan. Warm through gently and add two thirds of the Parmesan cheese. Using a small blender, whizz this mixture up until smooth.

Pour this over the fennel halves, adorn them with the remaining Parmesan and then stick under the grill until golden and bubbling.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Thursday Thoughts

I was standing in the queue for the scales today (Thursday is my Day of Ritual Humiliation aka Weigh In) alongside about a dozen other gloomy looking women when I found myself thinking petulantly, “They’re none of them fat! What are they even doing here? That woman’s waist has a smaller circumference than my HEAD!*”

It’s grossly unfair of me. I don’t know any of these women nor their weight histories. Perhaps they have successfully slain their weight loss demons – and hey, look at that, they actually manage to maintain their weight loss by continuing to attend meetings. They haven’t regarded this as a finite process.

Or perhaps they have recently noticed that their jeans are a little tight – they’ve gained, say, half a stone and they want to deal with it now before the half a stone becomes twenty stone and they can’t see their feet anymore.*

Either way, Me gave Me a good dressing down for being small minded.

Then, after a gain (unsurprising given a weekend of debauchery in London – this is one particular gain I am quite happy to own because I enjoyed every single unpointed mouthful) I made the spectacularly daft decision to substitute my planned lunch (PrĂȘt Italian chicken salad = 9 pro points) for a pint of cider with D (= 7 pro points - gah). Although WW advocates eating everything in moderation, I hardly think this is what is known as a sensible meal plan. I now feel more than a little sleepy. And I’ve promised to go to the gym this evening.

In other, slightly more cheerful news, the red cups are back in Starbucks – and people, you know that this means that the countdown to Christmas has officially begun. I’ve yet to have my first (skinny) gingerbread latte of the season but it’s surely imminent…

*Possible exaggeration brought on by scale induced hysteria.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Notes from a big city – part the first

So, London baby! D and I had a wonderful weekend down there steeping ourselves in art, culture, and, most importantly, food.

We were blessed with perfect weather for tramping the city; the air had a crisp edge but was still relatively mild for the end of October. We walked past the tents at St Paul's, crossed the river at Millennium Bridge and then made our way up the South bank towards Borough Market, with a brief pause to take in the Tacita Dean film in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (joint opinion: interesting, but nowhere near as powerful as the big, black box that they had there last year).

I’m ashamed to admit, as a self proclaimed foodie and gastronaut extraordinaire, that I have never really explored Borough Market before and our visit this weekend was a little on the whistle stop side. We did pause for long enough to D to enjoy some brown shrimp served up in a cutesy scallop shell (although I would be careful not to apply the adjective cutesy to the rather burly stallholder) and for us to tick the “Come to London – see a celebrity” box. Yes, who should walk past us while we were standing by the fish stall but TV’s Dr Hilary Jones! (NB: he is VERY brown).

From Borough it was off to one of our favourite haunts on The Embankment, Gordon’s wine bar, for bread, cheese and a cheeky glass or two of red. Apparently, it’s the oldest wine bar in London. A word of warning: do not ask for a Diet Coke in here or a scary barman will frown at you and refer you to a website in which all the evils of the world are laid at the door of the Coca Cola corporation. Stick to the wine here, it’s safer.

Bread and cheese!
A couple of happy hours were passed following in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes before we hotfooted it off to Soho to secure a table at much lauded Polpo. You can’t book in the evenings so we were there at half five, noses pressed up against the glass like the Little Match Girl (and Boy). And a good job we did too – by six the place was filling up and when we left at about quarter past seven the bar was three deep with people disconsolately eyeing up the tables of those with the sense to come early.

We really liked Polpo. It’s tapas in the sense that you order a series of small dishes for the table, but the food has an Italian rather than Spanish influence – this type of restaurant is apparently is known as a bacaro and originated in Venice. It’s a style of eating that greatly appeals to me, partly because it removes the possibility of menu envy (you know, that sick feeling you get when you realise that your dining partner has made the better choice and your own food turns to dust in your mouth).

The stand out dish was probably the grilled flank steak that was served with rocket and a porcini cream – definitely something I want to recreate at home. I also loved the calves liver with sage and onion: it was rich, dense and luscious with a thick gravy that was perfect for soaking up with the oily foccacia. We were delightfully surprised by the fig, mint and prosciutto bruschetti – a fabulous flavour combination which shall be making an appearance amongst our Christmas canapes. The fritto misto, ordered as an afterthought, pushed us over from pleasantly replete to rather full, but still, it was a lovely little selection of crispy, fishy nuggets – especially good to see some whitebait on there. Our overall bill for (I think) seven plates of food and a bottle of prosseco came to £93 including service charge, so not bad value at all.

Fried Fish!
But it doesn’t end there, with our hero and heroine surreptitiously undoing top buttons on the train back to sunny Romford. For tomorrow they were heading for Roganic and, had they but known it then, a lunch of such magnificence that even the excitement at seeing TV’s Dr Hilary Jones would be overshadowed.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Meal Planning Monday 16

Thank you for your lovely cupcake comments! I haven't any other wedding pictures to share at the moment - we didn't have an official photographer - but if any more arrive in my inbox I will post them here!

We had an amazing weekend - posts to follow soon, but in the meantime, it is, of course, time for some meal planning.

Another pretty short week meal planning wise which will find us eating:

A Toulouse sausage and butterbean casserole, using some sausages we picked up from the legendary Ginger Pig.

Ham hock, leek and potato gratin.

Slow roasted pork shoulder with roast potatoes and fennel braised with butter and Parmesan.

Hmmmm, a wee bit piggy-wig orientated! But very tasty sounding none the less.

As always, head to Mrs M's blog for more meal planning fun.

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