Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Tag: I'm it!

I’ve been tagged! The gorgeous Jenny, whose blog I make a point of never reading when I’m hungry has tagged me to take part in the Food Bloggers Unplugged series which was started over at A Little Bit of Heaven on a Plate . Which means I get to ramble on about two of my favourite subjects – food and, er, myself.

What, or who, inspired you to start a blog?

I first started writing about food….oh, about five or so years ago. D and I had developed a bit of a restaurant habit and I started writing reviews – partly to amuse myself and partly so that we had a record of what we were eating. Then, back in 2009 a piece I wrote about The Old Vicarage in Sheffield won a competition which gave me a bit of a confidence boost and I decided I wanted to give myself an outlet to write more regularly.

The thing is, there were so many wonderful blogs out there already, I didn’t want to join the party as it were without a bit of a different slant, and that is where the WeightWatchers angle came about. I’ve spent most of my life trying to be thinner (rarely succeeding, mind) and the older I get the more I realise I only want to do it on my terms – i.e. avoiding uninspiring, tasteless “diet” food as much as possible.

Who is your foodie inspiration?

Hmmm, tricky.

I’ve always enjoyed both cooking and eating, and that’s thanks to my parents who encouraged us as children to eat widely and well, and ensured that we had all the basic skills we needed to be able to look after ourselves and not have to rely on takeaways and toast.

But my inspiration nowadays…well, I would probably have to say D. Since we met we’ve had so many culinary adventures together, and it has been those that have really inspired me to cook more and eat more and generally be more curious about food.

Your greasiest, batter - splattered food/drink book is?

I have a lot of recipe books, but I must be very honest and say I tend to treat them a bit like novels and day to day am probably more likely to cook from recipes I’ve found online. Which is something I really must change. Probably the most used book in the collection is Mary Berry’s Complete Cookery Course – mainly because it is a copy my Mum has had for donkey’s years that she gave to me when I moved out (buying herself a new edition, I believe!). It’s an incredible useful guide for basics.

Tell us all about the best thing you have ever eaten in another country, where was it, what was it?

A few years ago we went to Copenhagen and had dinner at Noma, which went on to be named the best restaurant in the world. The food there was truly amazing, like nothing I’d ever had before. They only serve Nordic ingredients, many of which are foraged, so most of the flavours were quite alien to what I was used to, but it was stunning: fresh and vibrant but also playful. I love food with a sense of humour! I couldn’t pick out one particular course as the best – the whole experience was just fabulous.

Another food bloggers table you'd like to eat at is?

 Without wishing to sound creepy (she did nominate me after all!) it would probably have to be Jenny’s. I do always think her food sounds seriously good – proper home cooking.

What is the one kitchen gadget you would ask Santa for this year (money no object of course)?

I was lucky enough to be given a KitchenAid this year as a wedding present, and I’d like some more attachments for that, please Santa.

Who taught you how to cook?

I used to bake a lot with my maternal grandmother – scones and sponges and that sort of thing. Basic cookery skills – that would be my Mum. To be honest, I’ve never really understood people saying that they can’t cook, if you can read, taste and you understand a few basic techniques then you can follow a recipe, so a lot of skills and techniques I tend to pick up as I go along.

I'm coming to you for dinner what's your signature dish?

If you’re coming for a dinner party at our house, then D will be your head chef – he tends to be in charge of the “event” cookery. I do always make gougeres though – lovely little cheesy choux puffs to enjoy with a drink beforehand.

In terms of midweek cookery – I tend to cook lots of things not very frequently, if you see what I mean. I am a huge fan of pasta though, so you’d probably get a bowl of pasta pesto if you caught me on the hop! It has been a staple since my student days.

What is your guilty food pleasure?

I try not to feel guilty about any type of food – everything in moderation, etc.! I do probably enjoy Dominos pizza far more than I should though – after all, no Italian would recognise those doughy, gooey utterly delectable monstrosities as pizza would they? Perhaps they should invent a new name for it.

Reveal something about yourself that others would be surprised to learn?

Now this is quite hard...I am an open book! And also, quite dull!

OK…there must be something…I am a grade 8 clarinetist, and did think about turning professional for a while back in my younger days – I won the Junior Musician of Havering at one point, which was probably the pinnacle of my musical career. I haven’t played for years now, and keep thinking about picking them up again.

That’s probably the best I can do.

Right, I’m supposed to tag five people to do this, although around this time of year I suspect most of us have other priorities…so I’m going to cop out and say anyone who happens to see this consider themselves tagged – diet bloggers as well!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Recipe Corner – Mrs Scrooge’s Piccalilli

We ventured into York on Sunday. For the uninitiated, York, whilst a very beautiful city with many fine features, is what can only be described as a Tourist Trap. Especially around this time of the year when the main street seems to play host to one rather twee Christmas market after another.

Yes, I know. Bah humbug.

I love Christmas, I really do, but the advent of Internet shopping has spoiled me utterly and I can no longer bring myself to love Christmas shopping. I found myself in the Marks and Spencer’s food hall shooting imaginary death rays at all the old age pensioners who had decided that, despite the fact they have the ENTIRE WEEK to go and do their shopping, Sunday – and the Sunday two weeks before Christmas at that, is the very, very best time to venture out for mince and onion slices. The American tourists who were absolutely fascinated by the contents of the tinned goods aisle – apparently they don’t have Heinz Cream of Tomato soup in the States - were also on the end of my patented Beam of Death.

It was my husband that made me brave the ravening hoards to purchase the ingredients for homemade chutney. And it’s a good job he did really – I should have made it a couple of weeks ago but I’ve been shamefully disorganised. Last year I went it for a Nigella recipe inspired by all good flavours of Christmas, but this year I’m experimenting with a slightly simpler spiced apple recipe which I think will work beautifully with strong cheddar. It spent the night burbling away to itself in the slow cooker which made the whole process even more painless than usual. I’ll also be revisiting a fabulous piccalilli which I discovered a few years ago on the Waitrose website and which is reproduced below. This stuff is truly fantastic so I try and remember to make enough to both give away and retain a jar for us.

The only ingredient in this that the dedicated Weight Watcher needs to worry about is the sugar. I would therefore reckon on a single point for a good dollop.


700ml malt vinegar
2 tbsp coriander seeds
500g cauliflower, broken into small florets
2 onions, peeled and chopped
3 tbsp English mustard powder
3 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp Tumeric
2 tbsp ground ginger
150ml Cider vinegar
100g French beans trimmed and sliced
½ cucumber, quartered and sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
200g granulated sugar

Makes 1.7kg

Place the malt vinegar and coriander seeds in a large pan and bring to the boil, at which point add the cauliflower and onion and simmer for about five minutes until slightly softened but retaining some crunch.

Meanwhile, put the mustard, flour, turmeric and ginger into a small bowl and gradually whisk in the cider vinegar to make a smooth paste.

Add the remaining vegetables, garlic and sugar to the pan and stir over the heat for 2-3 minutes until the sugar has completely dissolved. Drain over a large bowl to collect the vinegar.

Put the mustardy mixture in the pan and bring to the boil. Gradually add the malt vinegar back in and then allow to simmer for 10 minutes, until it coats the back of a spoon. Now replace the drained vegetables and take off the heat.

The piccalilli can now be spooned into sterilised jars (the easiest way to do this is to run them through a hot dishwasher) and kept for as long as you can resist it. Not very long in our household.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Maybe this time next year I'll have a Beachbody...

One of the things that I really, really want to get off to a flying start this coming January is a proper exercise routine. Throughout 2010 I was managing fairly regular attendance at the gym – to the extent that I was actually choosing to get up before nine on a Saturday to get to a Body Combat class. All that has rather petered out in the latter half of this year.

My general attitude to exercise was always one of dislike and suspicion, a seed planted back in my school days. I was not, it is safe to say, a sporty child, nor had any ambitions in that direction and can’t say I ever cried myself to sleep at night when I missed out on a place in the netball team. While we’re on the general subject, I never really understood the edict that every single pupil had to have some sort of role in Sports Day, but tried to get on board (generally by putting my name down for the relatively safe Tug of War every year as soon as the sign up sheet was posted). With the exception of swimming I steered clear of sport in general. And I think the world of sport was probably pretty grateful.

But then, back in (I think) about 2009, D and I began attending a local gym on a reasonably regular basis. I started off by just sticking to gentle lengths of the pool before cautiously venturing into the gym proper and then discovered that some of the classes were actually OK as long as you stayed at the back and avoided catching sight of yourself in the wall to wall mirrors. It would be too much to say that I ever enjoyed myself, but I definitely enjoyed the feeling of well being that followed a good workout. And I also enjoyed the fact that exercising allowed me to eat more. Weight Watchers allows you to earn bonus activity points to be consumed or not as the individual sees fit – well, I generally always saw fit (I am quite very greedy) and still achieved a steady weight loss as well as some fledgling muscle tone beneath the flab. So what happened in 2011? Hard to say. We’ve fallen out of routine, and, I must admit, the thought of having to build up all that fitness again from scratch does fill me with dread. More than once in the last couple of months have I thought about cancelling my gym membership.

Perhaps, then, it was more than a little bit lucky that a few weeks ago I had an email from someone who wondered if I’d be interested in mentioning some of their products on here. If I tell you the site was called you may understand why I was more than a little surprised – there may well have been some incredulous laughter on my part. But I read her mail and was touched that she said that she’d seen that I have posts relating to “living a healthy lifestyle”. And I thought, well, they may have been a bit thin on the ground lately, but living a healthy, balanced lifestyle is in fact the point of this blog. I want the people who visit me here to understand that losing weight or maintaining a healthy figure isn’t about deprivation but about balance. Have your cake, eat it, but make up for it somehow. Eat salad for dinner or (and here’s the bit I’ve certainly been avoiding for the last six months) go for a swim or a jog. I’ve lost sight of the exercise bit of a healthy lifestyle recently, but this was a salutory reminder, and just in time for New Year Resolution season.

Beachbody have some new products coming out which they’ve asked me to link to, and, in the spirit of spreading the exercise love I am more than happy to do so, although I should add that I haven’t tried these particular ones myself – unfortunately, my living room doesn’t lend itself to home workouts. I have however done some Les Mills Pump classes at the gym and always found them good in a painful sort of way, plus, strength training is a really good way of boosting your metabolic rate. The slightly amusingly named Body Beast workout looks to be more aimed at those people who are wanting to build some serious muscle – not my thing, but ideal if you’re after a more Fatima Whitbread look (hats off to her, the woman looked amazing on I’m A Celebrity). And I had actually heard of the P90X2 workouts, which seem to be a mixed bag of strength training and cardio previous to seeing them on the site – to have penetrated my consciousness they must be doing someone some good.

I should also say that although it is an American site they do international delivery at no extra charge, which is nice of them.

Many thanks to the very sweet Emily from Beachbody for what may well be the gentle nudge I needed to get me back in the direction of the gym – I can’t imagine that I’ll ever be what you would call a gym bunny, but I do need to make it a part of my life again. Are you there, Bonus Activity Points? It’s me, Seren…

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Recipe Corner – Roasted Parmesan Parsnips

This post could well have been called: “Time to talk turkey (or in our case, three bird roast)”. You see, I’m rather excited – this year I am cooking Christmas dinner not just for myself and D, but for my parents, my brother and sister in law and my eleven month old nephew. Discerning palates all, especially the baby.

The menu has been more or less finalised and hopefully a lot can be done in advance which I think is the key to any sort of entertaining and means that I can spend most of the actual day drinking Bucks Fizz (Mum, if you’re reading this, I’m just kidding. I promise to remain upright at least until Doctor Who.)

As well as roast potatoes, the best ever braised red cabbage, crushed Swede, the ubiquitous sprouts (of which more in a later post) and, of course, peas, I will be serving some scrumptious crunchy coated parsnips. I’ve tested this recipe twice now (D has been forced to eat variations on a theme of Sunday dinner two days in a row – how he suffers for my art) and think I’ve cracked it timing wise. In terms of prep, both the potatoes and the parsnips will be parboiled well in advance, probably on Christmas Eve, and allowed to cool completely. Not only does this seem to give the best, crispiest roasted roots, but it also is one more annoying job out of the way.

I’ve given the rough amounts for 4 people here, but it is easily doubled or halved depending on the size of your family and, indeed, how much they like parsnips.


6 parsnips – look for short fat ones as they tend to be easier to cut
2 tbsp couscous*
20g fresh grated Parmesan
½ tsp ground cumin
Black pepper
2 tbsp vegetable oil

Serves 4, 6 pro points per serving

* The original recipe that this is based on called for polenta which I wasn’t able to find in its correct form in our local Tesco. I substituted couscous, a store cupboard staple in our house, as an experiment and it worked well. It is probably a coarser crumb than polenta but it still gave a lovely, crispy coating to the parsnips. By all means use polenta if you can get hold of it.

Cut the parsnips into rough quarters length ways. Your pieces all need to be of similar size, so if you have a particularly rotund specimen you may need to cut it into eighths. These look about right:

Photo credit:

Put the parsnips into a pan of cold salted water and bring to the boil. Once there, boil them briskly for a minute before draining. Use kitchen towel to blot off any excess water.

While your veg cook, put the couscous, Parmesan, cumin and several good scrunches of black pepper in a suitable receptacle – I used a shallow.

Now transfer your drained parsnips into the couscous mix and toss well to coat. You should do this while they are still warm. You can do this bit well in advance – the vegetables will roast well from cold.

When it comes to cooking them, preheat the oven to about 200-220 degrees. Heat a the vegetable oil in a roasting tray for about 15 minutes. Tip the parsnips into the hot oil and roast in the oven, turning once or twice for 25 minutes until golden and crispy. Serve alongside your bird with lashings of gravy.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

This is why we plan our meals...

The lack of a meal planning post on a Monday indicated a lack of, well, meal planning on my part which in turn has led to a series of rather thrown together (albeit nice) suppers and culminated in a meal out last night (if Gourmet Burger Kitchen can be considered "out"...I suppose it is, in that it is outside of the house)   Which was rather foolish since we're trying to save money at the moment and I weigh in on a Thursday.  And also because I try to limit eating out to really special places these days, and whenever I go somewhere less than special I feel vaguely cheated because I probably could have cooked whatever I'm eating myself and had it while wearing my pyjamas and watching NCIS rather than having to pretend to be civilised.  Anyway, D told me sternly (well, he said it in an email so he didn't use a specific tone although I imagined him saying it with a stern voice and slightly furrowed brow) to get back to it and achieve some "consistency" with regards food shopping and the cooking thereof.

(As an aside I still managed to lose half a pound at weigh in - hurrah - and GBK was...underwhelming really.  I mean, nice enough burgers and I loved the fact that the skinny fries were actually matchstick fries, oh, and the garlic mayo was good.  But it was pricey in a sneaky way which I didn't like - charging extra for a dill pickle in the cheeseburger for example, when to have a cheeseburger without a dill pickle is sacrilege as far as I'm concerned).

Anyway, let's talk meal planning.  There is still a decent amount in our freezer, so most of the meals this week are based around ingredients that we already have.  Oh, and the cunning amongst you will notice that there are nine meals listed, so this meal plan, taking into account there is likely to be at least one night out thrown into the mix, should see us through until the end of next week. 

  • Roasted chicken thighs with mashed swede, Parmesan parsnips, roast potatoes and Brussel sprouts with bacon and chestnut butter.  Two of the sides are trial runs for Christmas dinner.
  • Bolognese pasta bake - bumped from last week.  What is it about poor old Bolognese that it always gets bumped with me?  The sauce is already made though, so this will be a good one for a night when I just.  Can't.  Be.  Bothered.
  • Mackerel fillets with harissa and coriander couscous.
  • Lamb seekh burgers with cumin carrot slaw and potato wedges
  • Shepherd's Pie (I have a lot of lamb mince to use up...)
  • Egg, chips and beans - another one for a lazy evening
  • Bacon and broad bean risotto
  • Bangers and mash with red onion gravy
  • Nigel Slater's mild and fruity salmon curry with naan bread
So, should keep us going for a while.  Potato seems to be featuring quite heavily, but it is a potatoey time of year.  I might make the wedges sweet potato and add parnsip to the Shepherd's Pie topping just for a but of variation.

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