Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Steady as she goes

I’m all about the even keel at the moment.

My weight loss, over the last couple of months, has been pretty small. But, but, but. I am, as of Saturday, six pounds down from my all time high. The main thing to my mind is that I have arrested the steady increase that has characterised this last year, as erratic eating habits, one too many glasses of wine and a lack of interest in anything remotely resembling physical activity has taken its toll. So that is good. That is progress. I have accepted that until the situation with D is resolved once and for all, I won’t be too hard on myself. Maintenance is ok if it what I need to get me through these last few weeks of uncertainty with my sanity intact. It has to be mindful maintenance though. I have got back into the habit of a daily hop on the scales (which are a most pleasing shade of fuchsia pink). I know daily weighing is not for everyone but for me it is a small act of mindfulness every day. When I am not doing it, it is because I know that I won’t like what I see.

Oh, and talking of sanity, marriage counselling may now be over (the lovely Josie has nodded off into the sunset) but my own personal course of CBT sessions have now started with Earnest Ross. He nods a lot less but has a very emphatic head tilt. Also, he is the first mental health professional that I have ever met who doesn’t automatically proffer tissues when the inevitable snivelling starts. He expects you to reach for your own tissues. Perhaps he views independence and pro-activity as important parts of the therapy process.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Recipe corner: Banana and cinnamon blondies

When I returned from my jaunting at the weekend I was met by the sad sight of two dead bananas in the fruit bowl. Not just on the turn, or a bit spotty, but dead. And they’d taken half a lemon with them.

Now, we all know that the only thing a dead banana is good for is baking. Usually I turn to my go-to recipe for banana bread but I decided to go for something a little different which I’ve had bookmarked for a while.

I think I ever so slightly over cooked these, so I’ve adjusted the baking time to reflect that. Brownies and blondies are tricky animals – you want them crusty on top and gooey in the middle and these were tending towards the cakey in the outer pieces. I also have upped the cinnamon on the original recipe, but then I am a cinnamon fiend, so feel free to turn it back down. It’s subsequently occurred to me that these would be fantastic with pecans rather than hazelnuts and also that chunks of white chocolate running through might be quite tasty – although given how sweet these little beauties are already this might push them over the edge.

Oh, and also, these are seriously good as a pudding Рtry blasting them in the microwave for 30 seconds and then serving with half fat cr̬me fraiche and a trickle of golden syrup or toffee sauce. Divine.

I’ve suggested cutting these into sixteen pieces, but, to be honest they are sweet enough that twenty would probably do as well – this would reduce them to 4 pro points each which is well worth it.

Ingredients

2 dead bananas, mashed
125g unsalted butter
325g light brown sugar
150g plain flour
2 scant tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
3 tsp cinnamon
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
50g chopped hazelnuts (or any other nut you happen to fancy)

Makes 16, 5 pro points per portion

Although easy to make, these blondies to require a few different bowls. So be prepared for some washing up while they are in the oven.

Speaking of the oven, preheat to 180. And line a square baking tin – 8 by 8 should give you a decent depth.

In a saucepan, over a low heat, melt together the butter and the sugar until it is liquid gold. Set aside to cool slightly.

Sieve together the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.

Lightly beat the eggs together with the vanilla essence. Pour in the cooled butter and sugar, stir, add the chopped nuts and mashed banana and stir again until well combined.

Now gently mix in your dried ingredients. You will be presented with quite a loose batter. Pour into the prepared tin.

Bake for around 20 minutes and check – the top should be golden and crusty and there should be a slight wobble to the cake which will set as it cools. It may require more time but keep an eye on it after the 20 minutes stage.

Allow to cool slightly before turning out and cutting into sixteen pieces. Serve with a cup of tea. Those bananas did not die in vain.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Messing about on the river (but only after lunch)

The sky over Leeds may be as grey as grey can be this morning, but at least, if last weekend proved to be the last of the summer proper, I'll be safe in the knowledge that I actually got out and did something in the sunshine.
Gherkin!
Friday saw me winging my way down to London to go to the open air theatre in Regent's Park to see a production of "Pride and Prejudice" which was absolutely fantastic.  The setting is utterly lovely as well though, the trees and trellises of the overpriced bar strung through with fairly lights, the fireflies zinging through the gathering dusk....oh, I came over all goosepimply.  Lovely stuff.  If you live down that way I heartily recommend it for an evening's entertainment.  One can dine there beforehand, or, you can do as we did and pop to M&S for a sandwich to enjoy on the grass outside the theatre.  That way you have more money for the overpriced bar.

On Saturday, boasting the kind of eye bags that can only be brought about by staying up drinking wine in a gay pub until four in the morning, we headed to York and Albany in Camden, with a view to nixing the hangover prior to a riverboat trip.  This is a Gordon Ramsay place that I can't say had been on my radar particularly but was very pleasant indeed.  We sat in the bar area which meant that the whole party had access to both the bar and restaurant menus - ideal if you are in a largeish group with varying tastes.  I, of course, got over excited at the sight of the a la carte and went ahead with that, but others opted for the stone baked pizzas (which looked gorgeous) and the bar burger, complete with a side of chips caused serious food envy when it arrived.


My choice of starter, after a restoratively spicy Bloody Mary, were some tasty but rather unphotogenic sweetbreads (top, right).  I was exceedingly happy that these arrived on toast (most things are improved this way) and loved the iron rich cream sauce.  Personally, if something on a menu is described as being served with broad beans and mint I would expect to a) taste mint and b) see more than three or four broad beans but hey ho. 

I followed that with a skate wing in burnt butter with capers and watercress (middle, right).  Such a simple dish but so delicious if done well, which this was, with no skimping on the butter or the punchy little capers.

Finally, it had to be done - profiteroles with elderflower cream.  Again, not the most photogenic of dishes, and  the elderflower taste was incredibly delicate and could have done with being taken up a notch so as to hold its own next to the rich chocolate.  Still, enjoyable stuff.

It was generally agreed that where York and Albany really excelled was its drink menu.  Between us we managed to sample a fair few cocktails including an amazing rhubarb and ginger mule that, as you can see from the picture, was served in a seriously cute little copper mug.  Cocktails were priced at £9.50 a pop for the most part, which is not ridiculously expensive for central London, and real care and attention was lavished on them by the bar staff.

Altogether a very enjoyable place to while away a Saturday lunchtime - and, I should add, that we took up residence on the largest bar table for a full three and a half hours with nary so much as an eyelid flicker from any of the lovely staff to indicate that they would quite like it back at some point - and then proceeded to split the bill across seven credit cards (differing amounts on each) which was met with smiles and cheeriness.  They earned their 12.5% I reckon.

Rolling, rather than walking, we arrived at Camden Lock.
Barges and bunting
The princely sum of £11.50 will get you a riverbus trip down to Little Venice and back which is an extremely pleasant way to digest a rather too big lunch.

So, as I said, this morning's grey skies are not going to get me down.  I've had a weekend of good times with good friends and there's a little boozy food baby to prove it.  Detox starts here... 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Recipe corner: Sea bass with Parmesan risotto and cherry tomatoes

Sometimes, when we’re dining out, D and I like to play a guessing game whereby we try and predict what the other will order. Yes, I know what you’re thinking – you’re thinking how much fun it would be to have us as dining companions and you’d be right. Barrel of laughs, that’s us. But it’s a long standing tradition now.

The thing is, the game has revealed me to be distressingly predictable when it comes to certain ingredients. If a given item appears on the menu that D knows I am 99% likely to choose it. I make it too easy. And I am not particularly motivated to fight those inclinations.

Sea bass, for example. Or just plain bass as I believe we should call it now. It is, quite simply, one of my absolute favourite things. If it pops up on a menu D has the game won because I just can’t resist. It seems odd, therefore, that I don’t cook with it more – particularly since it is so low in points as well! A decent sized fillet is just 3 pro points, not much more than 100 calories.

I tend to associate sea bass with Mediterranean type flavours; for a fairly delicate fish it goes surprisingly well with a range of robust ingredients. Equally, it can hold its own in the face of spice, and I have had it served in with an Indian curry style sauce that worked very well indeed. This weekend though, I went very simple to allow all the lovely, natural flavour to sing.

Incidentally this risotto, though as basic as basic can be, is absolutely delicious and would work as an accompaniment for all sorts of ingredients. Don’t be put off by the seemingly meagre portion of rice, it is rich enough to be perfectly satisfying.


Ingredients

2 x sea bass fillets (about 120g each)
Tbsp olive oil

Cherry tomatoes (preferably on the vine – they look so pretty!)

30g butter
Shallot, finely chopped
60ml vermouth (use white wine if you haven’t got any)
100g Arborio rice
300ml chicken stock
40g Parmesan cheese, finely grated

Serves 2, 16 pro points per portion

Switch the oven to 180 and whack in the cherry tomatoes to roast – they’ll take about 30 minutes but are relatively forgiving.

For the risotto, melt half the butter in a sturdy pan and, when ready, soften the shallot. When it is translucent (do not allow it to brown, you want mellow flavours here) tip in the rice, stir well to ensure that it is coated and then add the vermouth and allow to bubble off.

At this stage you know the drill: add a ladle of stock at a time and stir briskly, bashing the grains of rice about the pan, to absorb. Continue to do this for as long as it takes to cook the rice to the al dente stage – I would say about ten minutes, but keep checking the grains and work to your own taste. You may find you don’t use all the stock.

The fish will take about four minutes to cook, so time it to coincide roughly with the risotto being ready. Season the fillet well – the skin in particular needs a good sprinkling of salt. When ready, heat the oil in a pan – you want it really hot to enable you to get a good, crisp skin without overcooking the fish. Place the fillets skin side down into the hot pan and leave for three minutes. After that, flip them, turn the heat right down and allow them just a further minute to finish cooking.

When the risotto is cooked, add the remainder of the butter and the Parmesan, cover and leave to sit for a minute or so – don’t be tempted to skip this step, it really does make a difference.

Serve risotto and fish garnished with the cherry tomatoes and reflect upon the fact that, however predicable you may be, at least you have excellent taste.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

A sad day for York foodies

Our beloved J Baker’s is closed.

We thought that it had looked quiet lately. But still, this was unexpected and rather sad. If ever I had a sentimental attachment to a restaurant it was that one, as my many mentions of it on here might have indicated. For me, the food was never anything less than delicious, but more than that, it had wit, humour, flair all rooted very firmly in locality and nostalgia. I shall miss it very much and am glad we made the effort to go back there recently.

On a wider point though, it is bad news for the York restaurant scene which (in my opinion) has never been as good as it should be. There are, in common with many cities in the UK, too many chains and, among the non chains, too many mediocre middle of the road establishments that are frightened to offer anything different. With the wealth of tourist footfall through the city, I would have thought there is plenty of scope for more dining experiences akin to J Baker’s. Sadly, it looks like I'm wrong.

I remain hopeful that Jeff Baker has merely opted for a change in direction – a comment on the York Evening Press website referred to him moving to another city -  and if that is the case then I wish him well and hope to dine with him again someday soon. And, to ease the blow, Andrew Pern of the superlative Star Inn is opening a new place in York this autumn which I am very, very, very excited about. After all, this is the man to whom I entrusted my wedding breakfast.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Recipe corner - Trout and Parma ham

I was browsing a couple of new food blogs the other day and was struck by the utter beauty of the accompanying photography.  Damn these people who are able to create delicious food and make it look good too.  It's not just the finished products that look good either - it's the casually strewn about strands of spaghetti, the gentle curve of a cherry tomato on the side of a saucer, or an artfully placed carrot/knife installation.  I've tried to do that, I really have, and they just look like I'm being my usual, haphazard self.  What I want to know is, do these people ever eat a hot meal?  I mean, really, when I'm plating up my dinner my thought processes are usually along the lines of "Must get food to belly as quickly as possible*....oh, should take a picture for the blog, where's the phone, grab, point, click - and we'll see if I can Instagram it into oblivion later."

*The naked greed demonstrated by this sentence is probably one of the reasons that I am fat.

Anyway, for today's example of the worst food photographer on the Blogosphere I give you:

Yeah.  Lucky it tasted good.

This is surf and turf Nigel Slater style, based very closely upon his original recipe here.  Trout, smeared with flavoured butter, wrapped in Parma ham and baked in the oven it was one of the tastiest things that I have cooked and eaten in a while.  And, despite a generous helping of butter, points friendly. 

I chose to make the butter in advance and chill it.  You could avoid this step and just smear the room temperature butter on the fish when assembling which would be a slightly quicker albeit messier process.  I'd probably just end up getting butter everywhere and be forced to lick it off my fingers.*

*The ardent love of butter demonstrated in this sentence is probably another reason why I am fat.

I served this with new potatoes which could be squished into the buttery juices, and the tail end of this year's asparagus (sob!)

Ingredients

2 trout fillets (approx. 110g each)
50g Parma ham in thin slices
30g butter
Clove of garlic, crushed
Tsp dried sage (or use fresh if, unlike me, you remember to buy it; dried worked perfectly well)
2 lemon wedges
Handful of flatleaf parsley, roughly chopped.

Serves 2, 8 pro points per portion

Make the butter in advance if you wish; ensure the butter itself is at room temperature and mash together with the crushed garlic, sage and some seasoning.  Tip the softened butter onto a small square of clingfilm and roll up into a little sausage of artery clogging goodness.  Bung in the fridge for a couple of hours to firm up.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 180.

Divide your slices of Parma ham into two portions and lay out vertically on a board.  Season the trout and then set, horizontally and skin side up, on the top of the ham to form a cross shape. 

Remove the butter sausage from the fridge, liberate from the clingfilm and thinly slice.  Lay the slices of butter on top of the trout.  Wrap the Parma ham around the trout fillet not bothering if the ends remain exposed.

Sit the fish, skin side up, in a baking dish with the two wedges of lemon.  Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes.  Before serving, squeeze over the roasted lemon juice and sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Why isn't ert the opposite of inert?

I have been known to “hang out” (get me with the modern parlance) on the WW message boards from time to time. Weight loss – especially when you have a bit to lose – is like…I don’t know, golf, in that it is one of those things that becomes incredibly interesting and all consuming to you in a way that is utterly inexplicable to those who can’t relate.

Anyhoo, there is a lovely lady, K, on there who had lost stones and stones and who now runs seasonal challenges for other people – she puts you into teams and then you report your weight loss (or lack thereof) each week and she sends motivational messages and awards stars to the individuals and teams who lose the most weight…it’s all very much the kind of thing I appreciate and I thought I’d join this season for some additional motivation. I am in team 3 and they are lucky to have me (hollow laugh).

I had to report a gain for my first week of the challenge – which will be no surprise to anyone who saw my rather depressing post yesterday. I commented to K that real life was getting in the way of Weight Watching and she sent me a lovely response back:

You’re so right about real life interfering with our WW efforts! I think if you just stick at it, things will get better on the WW front. I look at it as a measure of my control over a small piece of a chaotic world. Everything else might be going wrong, but if I have control over what I eat, things are good in one part of my life.

Wise words indeed, from a woman who has proved that it is possible to lose a substantial amount of weight and, what’s even more incredible, keep it off.

So – things may be up in the air with D but today, just today, I’m going to take back a bit of control elsewhere.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

I am inert

July. How did it get to be July? Just two more months and we reach the point of the calendar at which D and I said that we would make a final decision as to the future of our marriage.

This poor little blog has drifted away from its original purpose this year. It hasn’t been a blog about losing weight (although the scales have started to flurry downwards in recent weeks – and I’ve actually been stepping on the scales which is progress). It hasn’t really been a blog about food either, meal out posts aside, because the food I’ve been eating at home has been highly uninteresting. I don’t suppose anyone stumbling across it nowadays would feel inspired to learn more about Weight Watchers (although I am not, and never wish to be, an out and out advert for the company – I just happen to think that their healthy eating plan is eminently doable and sensible) or listen to a word I have to say on the subject of healthy eating. I still love it (the blog) though. I love the fact that it is an opportunity to do a little bit of writing every now and again and writing is something that really makes my heart sing. I love that I have retained little vignettes of my life across the past few years – and yes, most of them are food related but to be honest I have always been someone who measures out their days in meals rather than coffee spoons. And I want to continue to write it and, hopefully, make it less of the one woman pity party that it occasionally veers towards.

I guess that I am partly contemplating this now because I am distracted at the thought of the approaching deadline. If we decide to get back together, this blog will hopefully subside back into a cosy record of domestic meals and a suburban housewife’s battle of the bulge. But if we don’t? What then?

I recognise that my life cannot proceed in this, the state of limbo that I have existed in since last September. That, for me, has been the hardest thing about this process. The initial, horrific pain has subsided – as pain generally does – to a dull ache of loss. But the mourning process that must proceed from a relationship break up that I’ve not been able to fully go through. I feel like I’m caught in aspic – not quite single, not quite a wife. And it’s making me very, very tired now. Tired, and fed up and stubbornly resisting committing myself properly to anything. Like counting points. Or sorting out my messy spare room. Or knocking a couple of annoying tasks off my work to-do list. Or being anything other than inert.

Or perhaps it is just the weather. Let us be British and blame the weather instead.