Tuesday, 30 June 2015

"Books. Cats. Life is good."

It's always easy to focus on the negative when, as that glorious Edward Gorey quote suggests, there is plenty to be cheerful about.

Cats, for one thing. We haven't had a Minx picture for a while, have we?

She continues to be as eccentric a creature as ever there was and a total Mummy's girl to boot which is great news for the Mummy in question - less so for D. She literally walks over him to get to me.
On the subject of books - or rather, adaptations of books, has anyone else been watching the adaption of "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell" on BBC1?  Fabulous stuff.  One of those series that makes you happy to hand over your license fee.  I am considering rereading the novel (which I adore) but there are so many things to read and so very little time.  One of my current favourite websites is Goodreads; I pore greedily over my personalised recommendations on an almost daily basis.  We are going to Scotland for two weeks in August and I plan to spend quite a lot of quality time with my Kindle. 
In other news, our strawberry plants delivered up their first fruit at the weekend.  I wish that I had taken a photograph to mark the occasion.  We ceremoniously ate one strawberry each and agreed that they actually tasted of strawberries which was a minor revelation.  The plants continue to prosper, and we may even get a bowlful to douse with sugar and cream before the summer is out - watch this space.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Getting back to blogging one Meal Planning Monday at a time...


Sometimes, life gets in the way of both blogging and dieting.  And sometimes, it is not so much life as me...I get in the way of it.  I think that I have fallen out of love with things recently, got a bit stale. I need to think carefully about how I can regain the amazing mojo that I had not all that long ago. 

Without going too much into it, I've been feeling a bit off.  Long time readers will know that I am someone who has to keep a careful eye on my mental health and I haven't been as vigilant as I should of late.  And it can be a vicious cycle to fall into - I start to feel a bit low, a bit disinclined to look after myself as well as I should and that then feeds the devil on my shoulder and my mood continues to dip. 

I am, I know, amazingly lucky in many ways, especially in my family and my husband who is unstintingly supportive.  I also know that the tide will turn, as it always does and I will bounce back full of enthusiasm and then everything will be easy.  That's what I am holding out for - the day when it becomes easy again. 

In the meantime, there is still meal planning!  This week, D is out on Friday, and we are both dining out on Saturday.  So five days to think about...

Prawns with a chilli viniagrette and sweet potato and coriander mash
Leftover lamb biryani
Red pepper and goats' cheese alfredo pasta
Pea and ham soup
Tandoori chicken, creamy lentil dahl, home made flatbreads

As ever, more meal planning fun over at Mrs M's - and sorry for the slightly self indulgent whinge at the beginning of the post!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Foodie on a budget

I can't remember how it first arose, but recently D and I decided to enter into a challenge.  We are neither of us particularly frugal individuals, particularly when it comes to what we eat, and so we undertook to each design a week's menu and make it as cheap as we could while trying not to compromise too much on the quality of the dishes.  (You can see our respective menu plans here and here).

Lamb with gratin dauphinoise
We made it fairly easy for ourselves by allowing quite a broad definition of the word "pantry": dried products such as pasta and rice were included, as was flour, a box of eggs (any more than six had to be counted), a packet of butter and a bottle of milk, plus herbs and spices, seasoning, stock powder, and, perhaps slightly more controversially, breakfast cereal.  Apart from these items, anything that we already had in the fridge, freezer or cupboards could be incorporated but they had to be counted using the original cost and the proportion utilised.  Likewise, any items purchased that were not used in full were only charged proportionally - so, where I bought two half legs of lamb for £10 and committed one to the freezer, the total value of the lamb recorded in my half of the spreadsheet was £5.  We thought this was a fair reflection of the fact that anyone on a budget would be daft not to take advantage of the savings offered sometimes by bulk purchasing.

Smoked haddock and leek macaroni cheese
We usually do our weekly shop in our local Waitrose.  D decided that he would carry on as normal and not look elsewhere.  I took a slightly different approach and visited Butchers' Row in Leeds Market for the Sunday joint and budget supermarket Aldi for some of the produce I needed.  The results were surprising.

The total cost of my week was £34.49.  If we call this lunch and dinner for two adults, seven days, this works out at just £1.23 per head per meal or £2.46 a day.  Not too shabby, right?

Spicy lamb flatbreads with Moroccan couscous and carrot salad
D's, shockingly, was just £30.97.  Bear in mind that this was buying everything at Waitrose.  That's just £1.10 per head per or £2.20 a day.

Now, as I've mentioned, our definition of pantry was pretty loose.  But still, the result was surprising - we managed to eat pretty well over the course of two weeks while not spending a huge amount - and certainly not living on beans on toast.

Turmeric and lemongrass chicken

We both commented that good planning was absolutely paramount; not just sitting down and making a list of meals but working out how ingredients could be utilised in different ways to minimise waste.  However, a degree of flexibility within the plan can mean you get the best deals - D managed to get his week's meat on a 3 for £10 offer by compromising slightly on the ingredients for his curry, which meant that his chicken, which provided one dinner and two lunches, was just £3.33.  Vegetables, particularly root vegetables, are a cheap way to add bulk as well as additional flavour - I caramelised a handful of onions at the beginning of the week and used them both with shredded spicy lamb in a flatbread, and stirred through basmati rice, ribbons of carrot popped up in a Moroccan style couscous salad and a herby pasta dish.

Spaghetti with carrots and herb pesto
We also both agreed that a good spice cupboard is also pretty essential.  The likelihood is, on a budget, you will be buying cheaper, possibly less high quality, meat and fish which will need help in the flavour department.  And it's worth spending a little on other ingredients which will add a lot of flavour for not a lot of volume - cured meats such as bacon (a couple of finely chopped rashers can transform many a recipe) or strong cheese like Parmesan which, as a seasoning, can wake up pasta and rice dishes.

Lamb and cauliflower curry with cucumber raita
All in all, I'm pretty pleased with the experiment, and hope that we can be a bit more thoughtful with regards our food budgeting in future.  In terms of the challenge - D won on cost and also won the prize for the dish of the fortnight with Diana Henry's absolutely sublime turmeric and lemongrass chicken.  However, I flatter myself that I edged it in terms of diversity of menu (four out of his seven planned dinners were pasta based).  Perhaps a very worthy tie?  And (cringeworthy final sentence pun on its way) definitely food for thought.

Monday, 15 June 2015

MPM: 15th June 2015

The weekend passed mainly in a blur of despair and giant flying reptiles as we binged on the latest series of Game of Thrones. Gah, the unrelenting misery! Not even the presence of Star Trek Deep Space Nine's Doctor Bashir popping up could offer much solace. One episode left to go and I have no doubt it will be equally traumatic.

Some good food while we watched though: last night, a slow roast pork belly and lentils dish with braised fennel and a superlative though spicy curry on Saturday, which definitely eased the pain slightly. 

This week, we've yet to make plans for Saturday although it may involve some form of homemade bread. And on Thursday, we're off out for supper at a place in Harrogate that's been on the radar for a while. Elsewhere the week looks a bit like this:

Salmon with pasta pesto (a bump from last week)
Steamed buns with leftover pork belly (inspired to remake by Nicola's recent post)
Friday night fish and chips
Tumeric and lemongrass roast chicken

As ever, more meal planning fun over at Mrs M's.

Monday, 8 June 2015

MPM: 8th June 2015

It's D's turn to design a low budget eating plan this week as we compete to see who can put together the cheapest, most delicious weekly menu.  I'm amazed at how little we have both managed to spend and how little we have had to compromise the type of food we eat - but I think I'll write a longer post on this subject later this week.

Last night, we had lemongrass and turmeric chicken from Diana Henry's latest book "A Bird in the Hand" which, if you are a fan of chicken and good food I urge you to look at.  The recipe is reproduced online here (albeit translated into American) and it is most definitely worth a try.  We have got leftovers for lunch today and I can't wait!

Elsewhere, we are having

A non microwave version of Jack Monroe's carrot ribbon spaghetti
Bangers, mash and red onion gravy
Spaghetti carbonara
Cauliflower and macaroni cheese
Salmon with pasta pesto
Lamb mince and cauliflower curry

Lot's of pasta then - which suits me fine as I love the stuff.  A couple of near repeats from last week as well - obviously our minds tend the same way when we are thinking about budget food, but still lots to look forward to.  As ever, there is more meal planning fun to be had over at Mrs M's

Thursday, 4 June 2015

We head to Le Manoir Aux Quatr'Saisons

My parents both celebrated a big birthday this year.  One of those ones where the number ends in a zero.  Whereas such events tend to mean existential crises and gin for their daughter, they are made of sterner (and more generous) stuff and decided to take their offspring and their offspring's partners out for a slap up dinner instead, with a luxurious room within staggering distance.

I actually had my 18th birthday lunch at Le Manoir.  It was, I think, my first experience of really high end dining and although I have been lucky enough to eat at many great restaurants since, it means that this one has a special place in my heart.  It didn't disappoint.

Before we get on to the food itself, I just have to say a word about the overall experience.  Because it is an experience, from the moment you drive in to the car park and are approached by a porter who courteously removes your bags.  It is screamingly luxurious, the service impeccable, the rooms opulent, the surroundings - Monsieur Blanc's gardens and croquet lawn flank the impressive manor house - idyllic.  For a brief time, you get to step behind the curtain and live like royalty.  Or, at least, a Kardashian.  Which is probably why an evening there costs the equivalent of a minor Kardashian wedding.

But the food, the food is what we are really interested in and it was, of course, impeccable.  For all that it is rooted in a very French tradition it has a very light, modern touch, giving the lie to the assumption that French food is overly rich and fussy.  There was a very clean quality to most of the dishes both in terms of flavour and presentation.

An early favourite was the goats cheese agnolotti which came bathed in a clear tomato essence with tomatoes, olives and artichokes:

This was early summer on a plate for me: the peppery sourness of the cheese singing through and enhancing the warm sweetness of the tomato and its accompanying troupe of vegetables.

The table was divided as to overall favourite dish of the night with half plumping for a fillet of brill with cucumber and wasabi:

And the others opting for a plate of lamb with asparagus and morels:

While the lamb was unquestionably delicious, for me, it was the fish that was really something special and perfectly encapsulated that clean, fresh quality that I mentioned.  The balance of the dish was impeccable - wasabi is a powerful flavour but here it added zip and zing without overwhelming.

I don't think that this is a restaurant to which you come expecting startling innovation and culinary challenges.  It is, at heart, a classical French restaurant, with a due respect both for classical techniques and for the ingredients it uses - many of which come from the gardens surrounding the house.  But that is not to say that it is old fashioned, or dated, or irrelevant.  True classics, and I think Le Manoir may well be one of those, never go out of style.

Monday, 1 June 2015

MPM: 1st June 2015

This week's meal plan should be sub-titled "How low can you go?"  D and I have challenged each other to design a budget week.  There are various ground rules as to what constitutes a pantry item (dried stuff, milk, eggs and butter up to a point, herbs and spices, oil) and the goal is to try and see how it is entirely possible to eat well on less money than we are used to spending.  Our weekly grocery budget is around the £100 mark, which for a household of two means we can be fairly profligate - but just because we can, it clearly doesn't mean we should.

Incidentally, the cat is not being made to give up her beloved Sheba pouches in favour of economy biscuits.  That wouldn't be entirely fair.

So, this is my budget plan.  The week actually began yesterday with a delicious roast lamb and potato gratin Sunday dinner, and you'll notice the lamb leftovers popping up on Tuesday...

Smoked haddock macaroni cheese
Lamb and caramellised onion flatbreads, with couscous and Moroccan style carrot salad
Twice baked cheese and bacon jacket potatoes with salad
Creamy lentil dahl with egg pepper fry, cardamom scented rice and cucumber raita
Sausages and mash
Mussel paella

D's budget week begins on Sunday when he has promised a delicious sounding spiced roast chicken.  Sounds good - especially the me not cooking part!

More meal planning fun over at Mrs M's - and if anyone has any top notch food budgeting ideas or recipes, I would love to hear them.