Saturday, 30 December 2017

Return to the Black Swan at Oldstead

Happy (nearly) New Year! Hopefully everyone out there on tinternet had a wonderful Christmas and is looking forward to seeing out 2017. It's been a good year for us - we finally bought our house, we installed the log burning stove that we've always talked about, work has been challenging but rewarding, D got a much deserved promotion and, most importantly, we've eaten some AMAZING food. So much so that I'm going to do an entirely separate post about my top dishes.

But first, I just had to tell you about my birthday meal. I'm a Christmas baby, and a couple of days ago, I donned a blindfold (well, a scarf over my head) and was whisked off by my beloved on a surprise Birthday Adventure. And it really was a surprise, because the destination turned out to be the Black Swan at Oldstead, a restaurant we visited earlier this year.

Poor old D. We've had numerous conversations about our favourite restaurant experiences of 2017 and apparently I had said, on more than one occasion that the Black Swan wouldn't be my priority to revisit. Which is not to say at all that I didn't like it, just that I'd not found all the dishes to be entirely to my taste. I think that he was a bit worried as to how his choice of destination would be received - but, as he explained, many places close over Christmas, and a good meal in a nice, localish venue with attached rooms had been tricky for him to locate.

As it turns out, we were bowled over by our second visit. The service was as charming as before, the restaurant as pleasant to sit in and the food, well, the food was absolutely fantastic. I'm not sure what had changed - whether it was just that this selection of dishes just happened to suit me better, which, when you only serve a tasting menu is bound to happen - but, for me, the stars aligned and I really started to appreciate the genius of chef Tommy Banks.

Undoubted dish of the night was a scallop with fermented celeriac. It was an absolute triumph of balance - sweet scallop, earthy and sour notes from the fermentation, an underlying rich creaminess from an ethereal celeriac purée and a hit of fragrance from the vivid dill oil. I've really fallen out of love with scallop dishes recently, but this one was perfect.

The main course, again, was all about balance and the harmonious coming together of a rich velvety piece of venison and a sweet-sour sloe ketchup. The sauce alone had a medicinal quality that made it slightly odd on the palate but as soon as it was paired with meat and the dark iron of cabbage everything made perfect sense.

And a blackened apple tarte Tatin with rye ice cream - oh my lord. Buttery, sweet, salty, sharp, savoury - every element came together, contributing to a perfectly fabulous mouthful of a dessert that was both familiar and very, very new.

When I first wrote about The Black Swan I said watch this space. Now, I say go to this space and marvel at the quality of the cooking emerging from this most modern of kitchens. A fabulous way to end a fabulous year of dining out.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Christmas Eve Eve

It’s nearly time for the Big Day and here at chez Seren we are practically ready to go. Despite the fact that it is just the two of us for much of the holidays, we have an absolute mountain of food. We don’t need to go shopping again until March.

I’ve been full of cold all week, coughing and spluttering all over the place, so am feeling utterly justified in taking to my bed this afternoon with the cat at my feet and “The Holiday” on the iPad. D and I managed a brief flurry of activity earlier on though, and between us have rustled up a batch of turkey curry, smoked salmon pate, pea soup (using the stock derived from slow cooking the gammon) and our Christmas Day dessert - mince pie baklava. Yum.

Whatever you and yours are doing for Christmas, whatever you’re eating, wherever you are, many, many best wishes from me and here’s to much more deliciousness in 2018.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Recipe corner: A good, old-fashioned rabbit pie

D started a blog once.  It didn't last long, and only two posts were, er, posted.  The second one was his recipe for rabbit pie.  The fact of the blog means that I know that we have been making, and eating, this delightful dish for six years at the very least.  And yet I have never mentioned it here.  Mea culpa. 

Everything about this pie is delicious.  The suet crust, which crisps on top but remains fabulously pillowy underneath.  The delicate flavour of the rabbit in its lightly clinging sauce.  There will be those who wish to enter into a debate as to whether it should be called a pie when the pastry is only on top but I will leave them to it and merely tell you to ensure that you have a pile of buttery, peppery mashed potato ready to serve on the side. 

Note: the rabbit filling can also be prepared in the slow cooker.  We did ours on Low overnight and woke to a very savoury-scented kitchen.  I do think that slow cookers beat scented candles for making a house smell homely.  I would recommend reducing the amount of liquid slightly if you make this in the slow cooker (my general rule of thumb is to half the volume).


2 small rabbits, preferably wild, skinned and jointed
2 cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped
2 white onions, chopped
275ml dry cider
425ml chicken stock
1 bay leaf
8 rashers of streaky bacon, diced

40g plain flour
40g butter
Nutmeg (for seasoning, along with salt and pepper)
Heaped tablespoon Dijon mustard
A generous handful of golden sultanas

350g self-raising flour
175g suet
200ml water
Milk, for brushing

Serves 6-8

At the bottom of a large pot, make a trivet out of the apples and onions, onto which you can place the rabbit and bacon pieces.  Pour over the cider and stock, throw in the bay leaf and a little seasoning and then bring the lot to a gentle simmer and cook for an hour, or until the rabbit is tender.  Set aside and leave to cool.

Carefully transfer the bacon to a pie dish using a slotted spoon.  Remove the rabbit meat from the bones, and add this to the dish as well (rabbit bones are small and sharp so this stage should be undertaken with a little care and attention).  Toss together the two meats, along with the sultanas, so everything is evenly distributed.

Strain the liquid remaining in the pot and set aside for sauce making (everything up to this stage can be done well in advance).

Now for the sauce - melt the butter in a large saucepan and then add the flour and combine to make a paste.  Gradually add the sieved rabbit and apple and onion stock, whisking well on each addition.  You may not need all of the liquid - you want the resultant sauce to be slightly thicker than double cream.  When you are there, season well with the nutmeg (about a quarter of a whole nut), salt and lots of pepper, and stir through the mustard.  Pour the sauce over the contents of the pie dish.

And now for the pastry.  Combine the flour and suet in a large bowl, alongside another generous heft of seasoning, and then gradually add water until it comes together to form an elastic dough. 

Generously flour a work surface and roll out the dough until it is slightly bigger in diameter than the pie dish.  Cut off a strip of dough, brush it lightly with milk and sit this around the edge of the pie dish.  The remaining pastry can then be draped across the top.  Brush the surface with milk, cut a steam hole in the centre and proceed to bake for around 30 minutes in a preheated, moderate oven.

Monday, 27 November 2017

MPM: 27th November 2017

Despite just having the one fast day last week, my body appears to have taken it upon itself to drop a chunk of weight.  I'm 4.2 lbs down this morning.  It all seems a bit odd to me; I wonder if I'm dehydrated or something. 

A relatively quiet week for us - D is out on Friday playing snooker, but other than that, there are no plans which suits me fine. Now that winter is properly upon us I can think of few things nicer than settling down at home in front of our just-installed-this-year wood burning stove. With the cat by my side and a decent book to hand who needs to go outside?

So here's the plan for the week:

Monday - fast day, soup.

Tuesday - another Rafi's curry, this one called Ma's Paretal, made with chicken thighs, mushrooms and little cubes of butternut squash. Not sure that the latter, in particular, is a particularly authentic addition to curry, but never mind.

Wednesday - fast day, soup

Thursday - roasted aubergine macaroni cheese

Friday - probably some sort of prick and ping for me

Saturday - sweet and sour pork with egg fried rice. D thinks that he doesn't like sweet and sour, I hope to prove him wrong.

Sunday - beef stew. I don't think that beef stew is a particularly exciting thing, D hopes to prove me wrong.

Have a good week folks, and don't forget to crack out the Advent calendars,

Friday, 24 November 2017

Notes on Northumberland

We had a wonderful few days away at the start of this month, heading up to explore a little corner of Northumberland.  It's not a part of the world with which either of us are particularly familiar, despite it not being that far away - we do have a tendency to bypass the rest of England and make straight for Scotland when we head North.  But this year we decided to go for a bit of a change, particularly since we had already identified Raby Hunt as our Destination meal. 

We booked a few nights, on my Mum's recommendation, at The Red Lion in Alnmouth.  Prior to booking we knew nothing about Alnmouth and, having spent two nights there, can report that there is really not a lot to it.  However, The Red Lion itself is a great little place to stay.  It's a pub with rooms and, while the bar looks to be quite unassuming, it has a decent range of ales and proper Posh Crisps (always a good thing) while the kitchen turns out perfectly serviceable, albeit ginormous, dinners.  I had two starters on the night that we decided to dine there, and found that to be the right amount of food; D was unable to finish his main course risotto.  That aside, our room was gorgeous, with probably the comfiest bed I've slept in all year, and the breakfast was where the kitchen really came into its own - top notch, and cooked with far more care and attention than you often find in bed and breakfast venues.

Goat's cheese and vegetable stack at The Red Lion, Alnmouth
As I said, not an awful lot else to Alnmouth - basically, a single street with the sea at one end. However, on that single street, a couple of doors down from TRL was a rather sweet little fish restaurant which I would not have any issue recommending to you if you happened to be in Alnmouth and in need of something to eat.  Which is not to say I'd necessarily encourage a special trip.  But Hooked, for Hooked it was called, served up some very well cooked fish indeed - my hake and D's sea bass were both absolutely spot on.  Accompaniments were well judged and thoughtfully prepared.  Our waiter did magic tricks at the table.  There was sticky toffee pudding for dessert.  Such things are all calculated to make me happy.

Hake at Hooked, Alnmouth

Sea bass at Hooked, Alnmouth
When we mentioned that we wanted to go to Alnwick (primarily to visit Barter Books which is the most wonderful bookshop that I have EVER SEEN and which seems to make all bibliophiles go slightly misty eyed) a couple of people mentioned the Treehouse and, indeed, one look at the website convinced D that I would insist on visiting there for lunch.  Decor-wise, it is absolutely adorable if you are slightly twee at heart (I am).  Just outside the Alnwick Garden, it is all wooden walkways and blazing fires and twinkling lights - the fact that it is a popular wedding venue came as no great shock.  The food is fine but I think you're visiting (and paying slightly over the odds) for the ambience because they're not serving anything that a competent cook couldn't make at home. 

The Treehouse, Alnwick
The gardens, and the book shop itself are both fabulous though.  I loved our day in Alnwick.  I loved the next day, stomping along one of Northumberland's beautiful, pale stretches of coach, with Banburgh Castle looming up behind us.  We also managed to squeeze in a trip to the Holy Island, driving across a causeway that was barely out from beneath the sea.  There is obviously lots to explore round there, and it is an area with which I need to become better acquainted - particularly since I hope that there are some foodier finds to be made. 

Banburgh Castle

Monday, 20 November 2017

MPM: 20th November 2017

I wrote this post yesterday and scheduled it to magically appear today. Or, at least, I thought that I did. The fact that it has not appeared and that literally no one knows what I am planning to eat this week (EMERGENCY KLAXON!) means I obviously failed. Bah.

It has been a tired, grumpy day so apologies in advance for a tired, grumpy post. In fact, do you know what? I'm just going to post a list of meals and then retreat back to bring tired and grumpy on the sofa. No reason for anyone else to have to deal with me.

Monday: chicken Xacutti with basmati rice - a freezer dive. We were originally supposed to be out this evening, so planned something quick and easy.

Tuesday: out

Wednesday: potatoes baked with cream and smoked cheese, fennel salad

Thursday: the only fast day of the week, soup

Friday: some sort of fish - to be decided on the day depending on what looks good at the fishmonger

Saturday: burgers

Sunday: roast chicken

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Recipe corner: tagliatelle with mussel butter sauce

For such a simple recipe, this looks bloody long when it's written out. Sorry. But if you like mussels, and pasta, and all good things, and if it pleases you to end a meal and have a glaze of butter about your lips then this is the dish for you.

I've already got a mussel pasta dish on here from years and years ago - I'll have to make it again soon to compare and contrast.


1kg fresh mussels (in their shells)
Small glass white wine

250g fresh tagliatelle

Tbsp olive oil
Shallot, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
Red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
50g butter, cubed
Small handful fresh dill, chopped
Squeeze of lemon juice

Serves 2

Sort through the mussels, discarding any with broken shells. Remove the beards. Heat the wine in a large, lidded pan and when it just starts to simmer, tip in the mussels and cover. Cook for 5-6 minutes until the mussels are all steamed open, plump and glistening. Discard any that are closed and set the rest aside to cool slightly.

When no longer too hot to handle, remove the mussels from the shells and strain the winey juices. All this can, of course, be done in advance.

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and, on a second ring, place a second pan (large enough to accommodate all the pasta) over a low heat and measure in the oil to warm.

Sweat off the shallot, garlic and chilli with a generous pinch of salt, then pour over the mussel juices. Reduce the liquid down by about a third. Start to add the butter a cube at a time, stirring well. Once all the butter has been incorporated you can throw in the mussels and dill.

Put the pasta in the now boiling salted water and cook for 3-4 minutes or per the packet instructions. Meanwhile, taste the sauce - season and add a splash of lemon to lift it slightly. It may taste slightly salty at this point but this will balance out when eaten with the pasta.

Toss the tagliatelle through the mussel butter sauce and serve immediately.

Monday, 13 November 2017

MPM: 13th November 2017 (and more musings on intermittent fasting)

For the first time in a while, we managed to complete two full fast days last week and, as a result, the scales have started to veer downwards again which is good news.  Monday is sort of the "official" weigh day which means that my "official" result is 1.2 lbs off - however, my lowest recorded weight of the week was 0.6 lbs below that.

None of these figures are stellar.  I doubt that anyone is going to be particularly inspired by a two-stone-in-a-year loss.  But I'm happy with it.  Yes, I remember saying at the outset that I would be happy with a pound a week average and I've managed half that.  But the important point is that it is steady, sustained weight loss.  There have been loads of weeks where we've only fasted once or we've not bothered at all and on non-fast days, I've been eating normally - no food is forbidden, nothing is off limits.  Because of this, I've noticed my habits improve; for example, I tend to eat quite small portions, I never feel the urge to clear my plate if I've had enough and I don't eat anything for the sake of it.  These are all healthy habits.  I feel like I've come a long way - even if the scales haven't.

Now, on to meal planning.  We had a lovely week last week, culminating in an excellent rabbit pie with a proper, suet pastry crust.  Absolute bliss with mashed potatoes, braised red cabbage and honey roasted carrots.  I'm looking forward to some leftovers this week!

Monday:  Fast day - soup

Tuesday: Spaghetti Bolognese (sauce from the freezer.  As ever, we live in hope of one day seeing it empty).

Wednesday:  Fast day (probably) - soup.  D won't be able to fast today as he is going on a team lunch out.  He said that he is still quite happy to have soup for tea, which gives me the opportunity to stick to a fast if I want to do so. 

Thursday:  D out - leftover rabbit pie for me.

Friday:  As with last week, we're going to do a mystery fish type exercise, depending on what looks good in the market.  The hake that D bought last week was served with delicious butter beans which I cooked with chilli and rosemary, which acted as perfect ballast (every time I eat beans I remind myself to have them more often).

Saturday:  Home made pizza - we both get to choose a topping.  I'm thinking maybe something with tiny cubes of roasted squash.  Or perhaps a classic goats cheese and caramellised onions.  Or punchy anchovies. 

Sunday:  A Diana Henry recipe from her Telegraph food column: baked sausages, apples and blackerries with mustard and maple syrup.  She suggests serving with mash or jacket potatoes. 

So an excellent week's eating.  Hopefully I will manage to claw my way, alone, through a second fast and record enough of a loss on the scales to finally tip me over the two stone mark for the year.  Wish my luck, and have a fabulous week!

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Raby Hunt, nr Darlington

Back in the days when D and I were young(ish) we used to turn to the Michelin guide a lot when picking restaurant destinations. I’ve always known what I like (most everything apart from rice pudding) and what I don’t like (rice pudding) when it comes to food, but when it comes to dropping a three figure sum on an experience, it’s as well to receive some wisdom and guidance.

As we’ve got older and fatter, we have become less driven to collect stars. And one of the reasons that we took agin them is the (to us) perceptible London bias. Despite the fact that I live in Yorkshire, I would always regard myself as a displaced Southerner, and, in general, roll my eyes at the chip on Northern shoulders when it comes to the national geographical divide. But I do concur that it seems to be far harder for restaurants outside the capital to trouble the hallowed pages of the Michelin guide and wonder if not all standards are created equal. Thus, when a restaurant in the wilds of the North East is awarded two stars we cannot help but take notice since it flies in the face of all our huffing and puffing.

And I can safely say that Raby Hunt, after a single, glorious dinner, has established itself firmly as one of my new favourite places to eat. Every single one of you reading this blog, wheresoever in the country you are situated (and I appreciate that many people live quite a long way away from Darlington) (and, in fact, some people don’t live in the UK at all so they’re even further away) need to get yourself over there. It’s not really handy for anywhere but that gives you an excellent excuse to stay over in one of the three, beautifully appointed, definitely not haunted rooms, and have a very good breakfast the next day.

The chef-proprietor, James Close, is not only self-taught but was, until the age of thirty, a professional golfer. In less than a decade he has marshalled a kitchen that prepares and sends out some simply extraordinary food which speaks of incredible instincts: an understanding of texture and flavour combinations that must be utterly innate. Much as I love dishes that fit within a shared culinary history, here, I really appreciated a sensibility that seemed unfettered by tradition. Flavour combinations were sometimes familiar, but sometimes absolutely not – the dish of razor clam with celeriac and almonds was nothing I had come across before and, on paper, doesn’t sound like it should work…and yet, in the eating was utterly extraordinary.

Pastrami sandwich
Razor clam, crab taco, mango and yuzu tart
Chocolate, black olive
Jay Rayner’s 2015 review of the restaurant mentioned that the food was not as definitively of its place as, say, a L’Enclume and I would agree with that…there was a hint of wanderlust to the menu with ingredients and influences both drawn from across the globe. Potentially confusing and cacophonous in the hands of a lesser kitchen but here, it felt mischievous and exciting. So a crab taco was served in the same parade of little dishes as a mini New York deli sandwich, a lamb ragu nestled within a crispy Kuzu basket (which we think is some sort of Asian starch), the final dessert (mango, yuzu and coconut tart) was full of tropical sunshine…and it all made perfect sense. And, really, it’s a peculiarly British habit to shamelessly annex tastes from around the world – we’re a nation of culinary magpies. So perhaps I was wrong to say that Close is unfettered by tradition – perhaps it is the nomadic aspect of our culinary heritage that he is embracing here.

We went with my parents and, around the table, struggled to reach consensus as to the best dish (although for my money the razor clam was the star of the show. Also, I want all my chocolate mousses to be served with a hint of fruity black olive from now on). Suffice to say, throughout the fifteen course tasting menu, there was not a single duff mouthful. But, as ever with these places, the service is as much a part of the experience as the food, and that was perfectly charming too. Favourite moment: my Mum wondered aloud what a yuzu looked like and one was produced from the kitchen. Second favourite moment: when D bemoaned the lack of bread available for mopping up the remainder of his lamb gravy, a basket was duly brought. You can be sure he returned the favour by sending back a plate so clean that no further washing was required.

With so many wonderful places to visit and explore, and finite resources at our disposal, we sadly don’t get to revisit favourite spots as often as we would like. However, there is absolutely no way that this will be my last visit to Raby Hunt. I am beyond excited to see what this chef, an absolutely shining example of modern British cooking, produces next.

Monday, 6 November 2017

MPM: 6th November 2017

We are just back from a lovely few days away in Northumberland (hence the lack of meal planning post last week).  I say just back - we actually returned on Thursday but I have spent all my time since Lying Around and doing Nothing Much.  Which has been very nice.  I am not the sort of person who feels the need to fill my time with activities...sometimes this makes me feel guilty, most of the time I just embrace the sloth.

Exciting moment this morning though - I have actually managed to lose a [tiny] bit of weight over the last fortnight, which means that today I weighed in at my lowest point so far this year.  Which has given my enthusiasm for fasting a definite boost.  I want to see new numbers on those scales, launch into Fresh Fat.  Whether that is doable or not, especially given the time of the year, remains slightly doubtful, but I'm going to give it a good go (stay tuned to see if this enthusiasm manages to last more than, oh, a week).

So two fast days this week, and one midweek catch-up with one of my oldest and dearest friends at Leeds institution, Friends of Ham.  Elsewhere:

Monday: Fast day - soup

Tuesday:  Pasta with a mussel and chorizo sauce

Wednesday:  Out (D says that he is going to raid the cupboards.  I suspect that he may end up at the chip shop).

Thursday: Fast day - soup

Friday:  Fish - we haven't got any further than that so far, as D is going to buy whatever looks nice in the fish shop and then we'll decide on appropriate accompaniments.  To be honest, in the current climate I'm working on the basis that it will take a lot to dissuade me from a nice pan fried slab of crisp-skinned fish and a mountain of creamy mash.

Saturday:  Chicken Xacutti with rice and naan bread

Sunday:  D's famous rabbit pie. With yet more of the aforementioned creamy mash.  God bless mashed potatoes.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Recipe corner: Parkin

Parkin is a glorious bake which appears to be particular to the North of the country, where it is a Bonfire Night staple. I first encountered it nearly thirteen years ago, at The Star Inn at Harome. The chef there, Andrew Pern, is a tremendous champion of all things Yorkshire and he served slabs of warm parkin as a dessert, with spicy poached rhubarb and rhubarb ripple ice cream. A very beautiful thing.

But, as I said, for many Northerners, parkin is chiefly associated with Bonfire Night and I suppose the inherently comforting sticky, dense spiciness is ideally suited for wintry nights. The addition of oats give it a slightly rougher, more interesting texture than gingerbread, the dark treacle lends a liquorice depth to the sweetness. It's well worth making it a couple of weeks before you intend to eat it as, like Christmas cake, it will sit quietly, wrapped in foil, and do nothing but improve.

Now. I've baked Andrew Pern's recipe several times but, until this year had not made it in my current oven. My current oven is a BEAST. And I foolishly ignored my instincts and adhered to the cooking time thus ending up with a sadly over baked parkin which tasted familiar but had a texture somewhere between flapjack, cake and Hobnob. I have suggested an hour in my recipe below, but just keep an eye on it. It is ready when it is lightly springy to the touch and the top is gaining a tawny, caramelised look.


175g golden syrup
50g black treacle
100g butter
100g soft brown sugar

100g self raising flour
Pinch salt
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp mixed spice
75g rolled oats

Splash of milk

Grease and line a 20cm square tin and preheat your oven to 140.

Place the syrup, treacle, butter and sugar in a saucepan and set over a very low heat. The aim is to melt these together into one golden liquid. Keep the heat low to prevent it from boiling and avoid stirring - pick up the pan and give it a good swirl every so often to ensure it melts evenly.

Meanwhile, sieve together the flour, salt and spices into a large bowl, then stir through the oats.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and combine. Stir through the egg and a little milk - just enough to ensure that the batter has a semi-pouring consistency.

Put the mixture in the prepared tin and bake - mine took 45 minutes and Andrew Perm says 90. If you have a relatively normal oven, I'd start checking after an hour.

Monday, 23 October 2017

MPM: 23rd October 2017

As meal planning posts go, this is likely to be a short one owing to the fact that we are having an unusual week - one with social activity.  We are out Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, Monday and Thursday are fast days, so that is just two meals to plan! 

But first a note on last week - despite the fact that I did a 6:1 rather than a 5:2, I still was a pound down this morning which is good news and sees me edging ever closer to my Post Op Lowest Weight of the Year (or POLWY, as no one is ever likely to call it).  A similar drop this week would put me in the next stone bracket down which, as any dieter knows, is one of the most pleasing of milestones.  Fingers crossed!

Mealwise, I really enjoyed everything that we ate.  Every time I have a jacket potato I wonder why I don't eat them more frequently - and really, with a small can of beans, a sprinkle of cheese and a decent helping of green salad, it is an incredibly satisfying dinner.  Last night's pork belly went down very well too - the braised red cabbage recipe, which I first blogged about nearly seven (seven!) years ago, remains an absolute triumph of a side dish.  For the first time ever, I made it overnight in the slow cooker which worked really well and I've updated the original post accordingly.

Moving on, the plan for this week:

Monday: Fast day - soup

Tuesday:  Chicken schnitzel, potato salad, lightly pickled cucumber

Wednesday:  Out

Thursday:  Fast day - soup

Friday:  Out

Saturday:  D's birthday meal part 1  (A.K.A. "A celebration of all things 70s"):  Classic prawn cocktail, steak frites, stem ginger creme brulee.

Sunday:  Out

Sunday, 22 October 2017

TWTWTW: Winter is coming

It appears to be one of the depressing truths about getting older that time is permanently getting away from you.  I am sure that when I was a child, a single weekend would stretch out for days, summer lasted pretty much forever and a year was a lifetime.  And now, at the grand old age of thirty-ouch the whole play reel has sped up to an alarming degree.  I don't know how it can possibly be nearly the end of October, and 2017 approaching its final throes. 

I mean, I understand logically that we must be nearly into November, and thus practically at Christmas, because I made my Bonfire Night parkin today.  It was my second attempt, I am very sorry to say, the first being an abject lesson in trusting my cooking instincts.  Basically, we have an absolute beast of an oven and always have to reduce both cooking temperatures and times whenever we make anything to ensure that it isn't overdone; even bearing this in mind, I still managed to over bake my first parkin until it resembled nothing so much as a big, spicy HobNob biscuit.  Nothing wrong with the flavour, and, if you're happy to lose a few teeth, perfectly edible.  But not squishy, sticky parkin.  For those unfamiliar with this particular bake, I'll stick the recipe up next week.  The key thing to remember is that if it looks ready, smells ready and is only slightly springy to the touch DO NOT PUT IT BACK IN THE OVEN.  Even if you've only baked it for half the specified time.

I've titled the post, winter is coming, but last night's weather - full on wind and rain screeching and battering at the windows - made me think that it is pretty much here.  It was a perfect night to be inside, with all the sparkly loveliness of Strictly on the TV and a fire blazing in the log burning stove.  That stove, which we had fitted back in early summer, finally seeing off the Gawdawful 70s-style gas fire monstrosity, has proved to be our most worthwhile purchase of the year.  It was the first real stamp we put on this house after we bought it from our landlord and it's fabulous. Every home should have one, plus a cat to stare wistfully into the flames.  Example:

I say wistful.  That particular emotion might be slightly beyond her but she does a good impression, no?

In addition to the fire, we were also warmed on the inside by the delicious Rafi's curry that we had for supper (do you see how elegantly I segue into food chat?  Seamless!)  It had been quite a few years since we'd used one of their curry packs, but, now they have a permanent presence in Kirkgate market I can see us buying them much more regularly.  The Xacutti curry, which we made with chicken thighs, red peppers and onion, had a wonderfully rich, almost smoky quality to it.  We both agreed that we could have taken more heat, so, if we repurchase will request the mix be made hot rather than medium.  Served with nothing by rice and a supermarket naan bread it was a perfect Saturday supper.

Monday, 16 October 2017

MPM: 16th October 2017

Full disclosure - last week was not so much 5:2 as 6:1.  Although since we (and by we I mean D) cracked fairly late in the day on Thursday, total calorie consumption probably still came in at less than 1000.  I'm learning the art of moderation in my old age and am sometimes forgetting to eat for the sake of it.  Hurrah for personal growth.

This, plus the fact that I am currently Sober for October, led to a very pleasing 2lb loss this week.  3lbs more and I will be back down to this year's low, which occurred about a week after my operation when I was basically subsisting on copious cups of tea and the occasional biscuit. 

I'm not really talking about the Sober for October thing (it feels deserving of capitals for some reason) because I am sick of making proclamations on this blog and then failing and doing the written equivalent of falling flat on my face.  So, there it is, it's the 16th of October and I haven't had a drink so far this month but it's not a big deal and I promise not to mention it again.  Actually, on Saturday night I did accidentally eat a whisky caramel truffle so in the most puritannical of eyes, I've already blown it.  It was a really good chocolate though, and probably worth it.

Moving on to this week's meal plan.  I am away for work on Wednesday night in EDINBURGH and trying hard to be cool about it because D will be left at home alone to weep into his solitary supper.  Every other night finds us at home, and the plan looks like this:

Monday: fast day - soup

Tuesday: jacket potato with baked beans and cheese, salad, coleslaw

Thursday: bangers and mash with red onion gravy

Friday: spaghetti carbonara

Saturday: chicken Xacutti (a form of Goan curry.  We're making this using a Rafi's spice pack and have high hopes)

Sunday: roast pork belly with white beans, black pudding and braised red cabbage

Another 6:1 week (we decided that fasting on a day involving many hours of travelling would not work out too well.  Yes, it's an excuse.  Yes, we could have slotted in another day.  Yes, we are, in fact, rubbish).  Lots of comforting, autumnal type dishes, most of which are being sourced, in whole or in part, from our freezer so shopping is being kept to minimal levels. 

Have a lovely week les touts!

Monday, 9 October 2017

MPM: 9th October 2017

I'm fasting today, and it is making me rather grumpy so forgive me if I don't dwell too long on this post.  Thinking about food might tip me over the edge and our office is heaving with cake.  My beady little eye is particularly snagged on some Colin the Caterpillar mini rolls.  I used to love a Colin the Caterpillar birthday cake and I suspect the mini versions are just as full of chocolatey goodness. Damn them.

Meal planning - nothing currently in the diary, so we've lined up seven meals.  Plenty of hearty, robust dishes going on here, including two midweek pastas which is slightly unbalanced but a) they are very different dishes and b)  I'd eat pasta every single day without a qualm. 

Monday: fast day (sob!) - soup

Tuesday: tuna pasta bake (hurrah!)  D says that this is something of an abomination and that no Italian would ever support the tuna and cheese combo.  I say: I don't care, this is one of my favourite comfort foods and is just what we need to use up some odds and ends of cheese, a rather sad green pepper and half a punnet of mushrooms.

Wednesday: cacio e pepe - we've been wanting to try this for AGES.  I can't wait!

Thursday: fast day (sob!) - more soup

Friday: sticky pork belly with noodles

Saturday: D's homemade fennel sausages with mashed potato and onion gravy.  We put this on because we happen to have the sausages in the freezer that need eating but who wouldn't want sausages and mash in front of Strictly? 

Sunday: roast chicken - various trimmings yet tbc.

Have a wonderful week all - I'm sure mine will improve rapidly when I can actually, y'know, eat.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

No news is no news

Not quite sure what happened there but I appear to have blinked and found myself in October.

When I sat down to write this, I tried to figure out why I sometimes feel that I have less to say nowadays.  I'm certainly not eating or cooking less.  I've realised that one key difference is that I am a much more confident cook than when I started blogging seven (seven!) years ago.  Although we still meal plan, the plan tends to be more fluid.  Both of us abhor food waste and will often tweak things to a greater or lesser extent in order to accommodate leftovers, or ingredients that look set to lapse from sadness to inedible at any given moment.  Some of the nicest meals that we have eaten in the last few week have been just thrown together.  And I always feel a bit of a cheat, blogging a dish if it is full of splashes and dashes rather than properly measured ingredients.  But I'm not sure why - Nigel Slater, a food writer whose prose I adore even if I do find his TV persona a little grating, has built an entire bloody career on such a methodology.

So, I am going to try and be better about putting up posts that just describe a successful coming together of ingredients.  Something less formal than a recipe, just a vignette.

Of course, the ability to freestyle more is almost certainly a result of me not following any sort of formalised diet plan.  I think the last time that I was a paying member of Weight Watchers was a good eighteen months to two years ago (I'm sure that a quick trawl back through the archives could tell me if I really cared to know).  Interestingly, I am certainly no bigger for forsaking my membership and probably a little smaller thanks to some initial success on 5:2.  But, as every catch up post that I have done recently seems to repeat, after a good couple of months I seem to have spent the rest of the year trying to reclaim the 5:2 mojo and failing, for various reasons.  Sigh.

Still, I am in a good mood today and unwilling to get too introspective about things.  It's been a beautifully calm weekend of reading, baking and Strictlying.  There's a pork belly joint being pressed on the dining room table ready to be served with braised lentils and a punchy caper sauce.  The cat is chasing a fly. Life is full of quiet, Sunday pleasures.

Very Sunday

Monday, 25 September 2017

Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside

Great cooking is, in my opinion, an art form – possibly unique in the fact that to be truly great it has to work across nearly all of our senses at any one time. Thus it is that when you are trying to assess an excellent meal, you have a certain amount of responsibility to try and separate the subjective from the objective. Except that when it comes to Lake Road Kitchen, I’m having real trouble because I loved it so much. It was one of those occasions where I felt that the chef and I obviously shared a sensibility with regards to food which meant that, with the exception of one dish which happened to be based around an ingredient that I don’t much like (sweetcorn), I adored everything – and even the exception I appreciated and admired.

The owner and head chef James Cross, as appears to be de rigueur these days, did a stint at Noma and the influence is exceedingly apparent: the ingredients are as local as possible with many coming from the restaurant’s own kitchen garden, others foraged from the local countryside (which, given that the place is in the heart of the Lake District is both beautiful and bountiful). The restaurant’s interior has a stripped back, Scandi feel – clean lines, pale colours, plenty of wood. But although the dishes often appeared to be similarly simple and even ascetic in their presentation, this was entirely deceptive and most ate as well as any food you will find in this country at the moment.

Hard to pick highlights, but I would walk back to Ambleside to eat the slow cooked octopus again. I have never had octopus like it – the slow cooking had enhanced the firm, meaty quality of the flesh before it was brought to life by a robust searing on the outside to give it texture and smoke. The fermented wild garlic puree accompaniment had us both swiping our finger around the plates to catch every drop.

I need to mention the lamb as well because I have genuinely never, ever had lamb like it. It was stunning. Herdwick, a local breed had been dry aged for 50 days (a technique more commonly applied to beef) to give a depth of flavour that I have simply never encountered before, not to mention a texture as silky as butter. The couple at the table next to us sent it back for being undercooked and, yes, the rack turned up at the table far rarer than is, perhaps, commonly seen but one mouthful would have confirmed to anyone that not a further second of cooking was required. It was utterly magical.

I’m often a bit anti modern puddings, being firmly of the opinion that the sticky toffee has yet to be bettered. But even here I was to be confounded – the buttermilk pannacotta with blackberries and foraged herbs was a perfect marriage of dreamily soft, barely set cream and the deep, darkly sour punch of fruit with sorrel, lemon verbena and chervil adding a completely new note that spoke of the autumn and the damp, delicate scent of the hedgerows. This almost has me convinced that pannacotta is a dessert worth ordering.

Lake Road Kitchen are only open Wednesday – Sunday and they only offer a tasting menu (five or eight courses with cheese supplement available). The menus change to make the best of the ingredients on offer, although we were told that they keep a note of what customers have eaten to ensure that when they return they get an entirely different set of dishes. This strikes me as above and beyond the call of duty, but is in keeping with the charming and extremely attentive service that we received throughout out time there. I honestly can’t recommend this place enough – the Lake District has always been somewhere to go to seek out culinary gems (L’Enclume, anyone?) and this is one of the shiniest that I have encountered so far.

Lake Road Kitchen
Lake Road
LA22 0AD
015394 22012

Friday, 15 September 2017

Home and Away

Hurrah for the weekend!  Especially hurrah for this coming weekend which will see D and I head for the beautiful Lake District to celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary.

Six years!  Yes, I know, I'm surprised too.  Of course, a year of that we spent apart so perhaps it doesn't really count (although given that we were the least separated separated couple ever I think there's probably an argument to be had either way).  But still, it's a good run and very deserving of a bit of a bash.

We're actually going to be having dinner on the day at the Lake Road Kitchen and I can't wait to report back to you on that.  The reviews have been glowing, everything I've read or seen about the food there has got me salivating - I think that we are in for a real treat.

Not only that, but we are staying at The Drunken Duck which I'm sure that I have written about before.  It's a fabulous place and also happens to serve fabulous food so I'm going to be ensuring that I save room for an excellent breakfast.  We might need to get out and do some brisk walking to work up a bit of an appetite, but given the part of the world in which we will find ourselves, that will be no particular hardship.

Closer to home, we went for a meal at one of our local gems the other week.  Zucco serves kind of Italian tapas stuff - very much in the vein of Russell Norman's Polpo chain, and we are so lucky to have it on our doorstep.  The pictures are of two of our favourite dishes - a salt cod ravioli which came strewn with sage and glistening with buttery, winey juices and a whole baby Dover sole, cooked to perfection and drenched in a gorgeous caper butter.  It's not pushing any culinary boundaries but it is the kind of food that makes you grin broadly and use your finger to wipe the plate.

Have a gorgeous weekend, folks, and I look forward to providing a full account of our adventures next week.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Recipe corner: Spiced blue cheese biscuits

Well, posting every day didn't work out so well but at least I've managed more posts in September than in August.  I will mutter something vague about progress and leave it at that.

I would have put up a meal planning post on Monday, but that fell by the wayside slightly because poor old D was under the weather.  He spent most of Sunday on his sickbed, looking impressively pale, occasionally rousing himself to, emphatic deposits in the bathroom bin.

It should be added that, when not (insert appropriate euphemism here), he was far more stoic than I was about the whole thing.  Bad enough that I am a hopeless, needy invalid but it turns out that I'm also not much cop as a nurse!  Sigh.  Anyway, he seems fine now but we have been playing food by ear while his system (ridden with bugs) and my system (ridden with vomit-related anxiety) settle down.

Anyway, enough of bodily functions - let's talk canapes.  Because, you know, we are coming in to that season when the more sociable among us might be having parties - of the cocktail or dinner variety - and every good party thrower needs a couple of good canape recipes up their glittery sleeves.  My absolute go-to are gougeres, which recipe I shared here (and commend to your attention again).  But these, which I only baked up in an attempt to make some use of a rather decrepit piece of blue cheese, are really rather good indeed.  The dough, once made and formed into a cling filmed sausage, can be kept in the fridge for a day or too or even frozen.  I imagine that baking from frozen would work perfectly well, just add a couple of minutes onto the cooking time and apply common sense and vigilance.

The number of biscuits derived from this mix will obviously vary depending on how thinly you slice them - I got sixteen in total.


90g butter
150g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 - 1 tsp cayenne pepper (to taste)
pinch of salt
1 egg
50 ml milk (I used skimmed to no obvious detriment)
100g blue cheese, grated

Have a large square of cling film ready to hand for when the mixture is made.

Lightly beat together the egg and the milk.

Now, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles (you've heard it before) breadcrumbs.  Or damp sand.  Mix through he baking powder, the cayenne and the salt until well combined.  Then add the cheese and again, mix well.

Now you want to add just enough of the egg and milk mix to bring the dough together.  Add a bit at  time and use your hands to mix it through.  As soon as the mixture begins to form a ball, cease and desist.  You will likely use about half - two thirds of the liquid.

Transfer the dough onto the sheet of cling film and, as if it were play dough or damp sand, roughly form it into a log shape.  Bring the cling film up and around and twist the ends, so that you have a sausage of dough.  Place in the fridge to firm up for at least half an hour.

If you're intending to make straightaway, preheat the oven to 170 and line a couple of baking sheets with baking paper.

Remove the dough-sausage and, using a sharp knife, cut into thin slices, placing each slice on the lined tray.  If you have the inclination, brush the top of the biscuits with the remainder of the egg and milk mix.

Bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until golden.  Allow to briefly cool on a rack before serving (they are at their best a few minutes after they come out of the oven when they are warm and almost melting but not likely to take the roof off your mouth).

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Sipsmith Gin at Shears Yard

Just seven days in and I've already failed in the entirely arbitrary challenge to blog every day in September.  The truth is, I'm absolutely exhausted this week!  I had entirely underestimated how difficult I would find going back to work after a month of lying around recuperation.  I am feeling fine in pretty much all other respects so am assuming it is simply a case of getting back into routine but oh, the weekend can't come fast enough. 

Before I had the operation, I think I briefly mentioned on here a gin tasting evening that we attended at Shears Yard, which I never got around to telling you about.  There is no point providing a detailed review since it was a one off menu developed for a one off event, which seems to be something that Shears Yard goes in for fairly often.  The quality and value was top notch though - if you are local to Leeds, I would highly recommend signing up for their mailing list to stay apprised of all such happenings.

The one we attended, way back at the beginning of August, was in collaboration with Sipsmith Gin and consisted of a five course menu, with each dish accompanied by a specially developed gin cocktail.  Annoyingly, because I had to pay upfront on booking and that was quite a long time and a few drinks ago now, I can't now remember how much it cost - I think maybe £50, £60 per head? Whatever the exact details, we both commented on the value - the food was of a very high standard and the drinks were not only tasty but also potent enough to demonstrate that they weren't skimping on the key product.

As I said, the menu was specifically developed for the event so I won't bore you too much with details of dishes that will never appear on the standard menu.  But the juniper cured venison lion with duck liver parfait and fig bread deserves a special mention not least because I am very much into mini loaves at the moment...

I also really enjoyed the pink grapefruit posset, despite not being the biggest grapefruit fan in the world.  The addition of white chocolate, whose rich sweetness took some of the bitter sting from the citrus, and the genius textural element of puffed rice granola, made for a really well balanced, exciting and moreish pudding.  The accompanying cocktail, which combined Sipsmith London Dry with, among other things, lychee and blue curacao, went down pretty smoothly as well.

We have eaten at Shears Yard once before - a distressingly long time ago (February 2015 according to this review) and it is a crying shame that time, money and a desire to try new things mean that it will probably be another two and a half years before we go back.  But if you're looking for somewhere in Leeds which turns out bright, interesting, accomplished food at a reasonable price then it is definitely somewhere to bear in mind.  And look out for forthcoming events as well!  There's a Taste of New Zealand evening coming up at the end of September which sounds pretty interesting...

Shears Yard
11 - 15 Wharf Street, Leeds
0113 244 1444

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Recipe corner: Mackerel with giant couscous and roasted red pepper dressing

Blogging every day is going to be tough if I have many more days like today which consisted of hours of travelling on rattling tin can trains to get to a...challenging (to be diplomatic) meeting which I could have done without. I have nothing interesting to say and am exhausted and grumpy and fit for nothing but tea slurping. Fortunately, I found this recipe post lurking in my drafts folder. It's been a while since I made the dish but, having now been reminded of it, I'm very keen to get it into the meal plan as soon as possible.

I try and always carry a notebook with me when I'm out and about. Usually, it gets filled up with shopping lists and top 5s, the latter done in the pub when D and I are a couple of pints down so that the handwriting tends towards the illegible. Sometimes, though, I'll make a note of a thoroughly good combination of flavours, nicked from a menu or packet, and years later I'll get round to bringing them together in a dish.

Aside from anything else, making this reminded me of the grooviness that is giant couscous. So much more toothsome and satisfying than the regular stuff.

You could probably do away with the fish here if you wanted a light but flavour packed lunch; as part of a main meal, the sturdy mackerel more than stands up to all the robust flavours.


2 mackerel, filleted
Vegetable oil, for cooking (I favour rapeseed)
2 handfuls of rocket

1/2 red onion thinly sliced
50g golden sultanas
50g capers, lightly chopped
25g pine nuts
100g giant couscous
1L chicken stock

2 red peppers
Olive oil (extra virgin)
Balsamic vinegar
Runny honey
Clove of garlic, crushed

Serves 2

Heat the oven to 180. Quarter and deseed the peppers, season and roast in the oven until the flesh is soft and the skin black (20-30 mins). Transfer to a bowl, cover with cling film and set aside.

Meanwhile, sweat off the onion in a little oil until soft and beginning to colour. Transfer to a bowl and return the pan to the heat; lightly toast the pine nuts in any residual oil until lightly golden. Add to the onion, along with the capers, combine well, and set aside.

When the pepper is cool to the touch, peel off the blackened skin and transfer the flesh to a mini processor along the garlic, a slug of balsamic vinegar and a drizzle of honey. Blitz, and then trickle in olive oil until it forms a smooth dressing.

Bring the chicken stock to the boil in a large saucepan and then tip in the giant couscous and sultanas and boil for around 6 mins until the grains of couscous are tender. Combine with the onion and caper mix then cover to keep warm.

Heat a little oil in a large frying pan. Lay the mackerel fillets in skin size down, season the flesh and cook for 2 mins. Flip the fillets and remove from the heat, the fish will cook in the residual warmth.

Divide the couscous between two plates. Top with the mackerel fillets then a small handful of rocket and drizzle over the red pepper dressing.

Monday, 4 September 2017

MPM: 4th September 2017

During my drive to blog every day in September, Mondays should be the easiest because I can just stick in a quick meal planning post and be done.  Hurrah. 

That being said, the plan for this week is a little bit vague and back-of-a-fag-packety.  Partly because it is my first week back at work after a month of post operative rest and recuperation and I am expecting my evening energy levels to be extremely low and up to little more than making tea and toast - hence the midweek freezer dive.  I am, hopefully, back to two full fast days this week so that means soup (on Tuesday and Thursday).  And we are going out for supper on Friday to, er, celebrate the fact that it is Friday.

Monday: We were originally intending to be out tonight and now we are not.  So tea will likely consist of leftovers from yesterday's roast.  We have cold roast chicken, we have some carrot and ginger mash, we have four roast potatoes - I am feeling some sort of bubble and squeak-esque patties coming on.

Tuesday: Fast day - soup

Wednesday:  Braised beef cheeks from the freezer, jazzed up with some blue cheese that's been lurking round the fridge for a while and needs using up.  Possibly mash on the side, possibly some crusty bread.

Thursday:  Fast day - soup

Friday:  Out

Saturday:  We are going Stateside and having Buffalo style chicken wings.  I am in charge of the side dish and am currently researching wedge salads - have you heard of these?  They sound odd to me but am prepared to try anything once.

Sunday:  Nduja lamb with a couscous salad - how this will work exactly remains to be seen.

Happy cooking (and eating) folks and have a wonderful week.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Dan Lepard's sour cream sandwich bread

I'm a bit late to the party on this one, since I believe most tinternetters with an interest in bread baking discovered (and raved about) this recipe ages ago. But I've never been ahead of the zeitgeist; I work on the basis that if I'm slow enough, by the time I discover things they might be just coming back into fashion.

I'm not going to reproduce the recipe here because, y'know, copyright. If you own Mr Lepard's much lauded baking book, "Short and Sweet", it's in there and, luckily enough if you don't, it is also available on The Guardian website: here. It's featured in a list of his top ten bread recipes, all of which I want to make.

It's well worth having a go at this recipe just out of curiosity - I find it fascinating that the technique of very short, sharp kneads can produce such a beautiful texture when it is so different to the traditional method. The result is a loaf with a soft crust, and a light, fluffy crumb.

I decided to opt for mini loaves to make use of the gorgeous little tins that I was gifted earlier this year. Aren't they sweet? A half batch of the mixture made eight perfectly little dinky ones which required just 12-15 minutes baking. Here are six of them, fresh from the oven:

One of their fellows having already been ripped open and slathered with butter. Behold that gorgeous, pillowy interior:

Highly recommended!

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Notes on gallbladder surgery

A slight departure from the usual Foodie Fare and probably not of interest to many.  But, you are more likely to have a dicky gallbladder if you are overweight, and if you starting reading this blog because it was supposed to be about dieting (hollow laugh) then this is something that may one day apply to you.  If not, no sweat, I'll be back with a cute cat picture shortly.

I really wanted to write this because I was so scared before having my gallbladder removed that I can't even begin to tell you.  I have issues with anxiety generally, particularly when it comes to matters of health, and the prospect of surgery terrified me.  So if this helps anyone else out there who is even half as frightened, then it will have done its job.

I first went to see the doctor in December over persistent, nagging abdominal pain - some generalised but some concentrated in the upper right quadrant.  It was never agonising, which is how gallstones can and often do present, but it was annoying. An abdominal CT scan showed some stones and that the organ itself was inflamed.  At this point, when surgery was mentioned, I must admit I didn't particularly feel that the severity of the symptoms warranted it; the advice of the experts, though, was that once you start having gallbladder problems they are likely to get worse and can end up very nasty indeed so, really, you're best off getting rid.

The process, in retrospect, all happened very quickly.  I saw the consultant within about a month of referral and then another month or so later was given an appointment for a pre-op assessment and then was put on the waiting list.  In my area, the average wait time from going on the list to procedure is 20 weeks, but I was given a date after around three months.  I should add, though, that I was offered a cancellation spot that I was able to take up which brought the operation forward.  It certainly seems to help if you can be flexible in these circumstances.

Unless they have a particular reason not to, gallbladders are removed using keyhole surgery which means that you can be in and out of hospital in a single day.  Apparently, the average procedure takes 45 minutes, although they can take anything from 20 minutes to 3 hours.  I had four little incisions, one of which was inside my belly button.  They inflate your abdomen to make it easier to manoeuvre, which means that you might (I did!) feel a bit bloated and gassy afterwards.  However, it is not an invasive procedure - I can't believe how small the marks are.

The thing that scared the bejeesus out of me was the anaesthetic.  Up until this point, I had never had a general anaesthetic.  I hope that I never have to have another one (the stress!) but it was fine.  And if you are reading this and are worried because, like me, you have a too high BMI and know that this makes you higher risk all I can say is I had no problems whatsoever.  There were two doctors taking care of the anaesthetic side of things and, I am told, they are present the entire time to make sure that you are OK.  If you are slightly overweight, they will raise your head slightly to make it easier for you to breathe.  If you are so overweight that it is going to cause a serious problem then you are unlikely to get through the pre-op assessment - i.e. if you're there and they're happy to go ahead then someone more qualified than you has decided it's not too much of a risk.

It sounds a cliche, but one moment I was in the operating theatre feeling a bit tingly, wondering if it was actually going to work, and the next minute I was coming round in the recovery room and the nurses were reading out horoscopes.  I expected nausea and disorientation but, for me, it wasn't much worse than waking up from a really heavy sleep.  I was slightly woozy and slightly dizzy, but within minutes was able to sit up and sip water and, as soon as they got me to the ward I was ready for a cup of tea.

In terms of general recovery: I was told differing things about the amount of time required off work.  At my first appointment, the consultant said 2-3 weeks.  The doctor that I spoke to on the morning of the operation said 3, the nurse in the recovery ward said 4.  My GP gave me a Fit Note for 4 weeks in the end but, to be honest, I probably could have gone back a bit sooner.  I am still ever so slightly sore, but not so much that it distracts from day to day life.  Immediately afterwards, other than the slight wind issue, the best way to describe the sensation is that it felt as though all my innards were bruised.  I was uncomfortable and a bit battered, but it was nothing that normal, over the counter, painkillers couldn't deal with and certainly nothing to be concerned about.  I had very little appetite for the first week or so.  I have also noticed that my digestive system seems slightly more...delicate subsequently.  I don't know if this is a long-term thing or just a question of things settling down over a period of time.  I am trying to listen to what my body is telling me in terms of quantity of food (I generally seem to want less) and not going overboard on anything with a particularly high fat content.

One thing that might well be TMI but no one mentioned to me beforehand.  One morning, I woke up to find that the largest incision site, in my belly button, had...well, ejected a rather large amount of blood-tinged, clear fluid.  I, of course, panicked, ringing NHS Direct at 5am and turning up at my GP's surgery first thing for an emergency appointment.  But apparently it is quite common to get a build up that all comes out at once, and it is nothing to get too concerned about, especially if the wound is not showing any other signs of infection.

The main thing that I have really taken away from this is how wonderful is our poor, beleaguered NHS.  I know you hear some horror stories but I can't praise the staff with whom I came into contact highly enough, from my GP right through to the nurse who gave me a hug before I got taken down to the theatre, to the lovely anaesthetist's assistant who chatted to me about his Mum as he was wheeling me in.  They do a bloody hard job day in and day out and I am very grateful to all of them.  They all said that it is natural and normal to feel nervous.  I mean, they probably could have done without me weeping on them at every opportunity but they were very patient and kind.

If anyone is about to go through this and has happened across this blog post and wants to get in touch then please do in the comments or to the blog's email address.  As I said above, I am more than happy to answer any questions about my own experience especially if it could help to alleviate someone's fears.

Normal service - i.e. food related witterings - will resume tomorrow.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Back to skool

I think that I have said on here before that the beginning of September is almost as exciting a fresh start for me as that of January.  The new school year - a time of shiny new pencil cases and virgin exercise books, a time to cast off old habits and commit to a life of scholarly endeavour.  Ooooh, it gives me tingles.

So it seems appropriate to come back to blogging on the 1 September, after a good few weeks lounging on my sickbed.  Everything seemed to go well and, to be honest, it has not particularly been pain or discomfort which has kept me from blogging but indolence combined with a general lack of interest in food.

However.  I am back to work on Monday and keen to make the most of the last third of the year.  In this vein, in the vein of new beginnings, D has challenged me to blog every day in September and I have agreed to give it a go, although I can't promise that some of the posts won't end up as Dear Diary...Here Is The Food Wot I Ate type entries.  Lucky readers.

He has also challenged me to start the couch to 5k programme AND to be booze free. These are, all three, lofty goals but I am assured that there are presents to be had if I succeed in any or all of them and if there is one thing to which I am susceptible it is bribery.  Hopefully, by combining them with continued adherence to 5:2 I will shift a decent chunk of lard - it certainly seemed to work well in January.

So, I hope that all out that in the blogosphere are well and thriving (Peridot - I am SO sorry for not answering the comment that you left on my last post.  No excuses other than the aforementioned indolence and struggling to drag myself away from my Kindle some days) and I look forward to sharing my September adventures with you.  I'll bet that you can't wait.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017


Apologies in advance if things go slightly quiet for the next week or two. I had my pesky gallbladder removed yesterday and, although all went well and I am already home (it was keyhole surgery which is significantly less invasive than the non-keyhole kind) I am currently sore, grumpy and have absolutely zero appetite. Which means the thought of eating, let alone cooking, does not appeal. Not the best premise for a blog about food. I am currently subsisting on cups of tea, the odd biscuit and plenty of paracetamol. These are not such things as blog posts are made of.

Hopefully I'll be back up and about shortly - there is only so much Netflix a girl can watch!

Sunday, 6 August 2017

TWTWTW: Lazy, hazy, crazy

Well, we haven't done a that was the week that was post for a while, which means that the blog has been lacking in cute cat pictures, which will never do.

La Minx remains as beautiful and capricious as ever, as is the way with felines.  She, at best, tolerates and, at worst, cordially dislikes D despite our ongoing efforts but he forgives her because she is beautiful and has the loudest purr ever to emanate from a little cat.

Now, tell me, where on Earth has the summer gone?  I'm sure we had a few nice days back there in what - May?  June?  But the last few weeks have been terrible!  As regular readers will know, I am not a fan of the heat but the lack of blue skies and the constant threat of rain is becoming slightly depressing.  I feel like I should be talking about barbecues and summer salads but it's really more weather for stews.

Still, miserable weather notwithstanding, we managed to drag ourselves out this week when we went to a really fun Sipsmith gin event at Shear's Yard this week, which I will write about in more detail in another post; I was shocked to find that it has been two and a half years since we last went to that fine establishment (I wrote about it here).  Sadly, both time and money preclude us from visiting such local gems as often as we would both like - and given the continued pressures on independent establishments it's a real shame not to support them more.  Leeds recently lost The Black Swan which was an absolutely wonderful gastro-ish pub that is also mentioned in the above post which goes to show that even places that do everything right are at risk.

We had a few nights midweek where we were a bit lax about cooking for various reasons, but things have picked up this weekend, and for brunch this morning I finally got around to making shakshuka (pictured below with toasted, buttered brioche).

It's been on my "dishes I should really try" list for AGES and, guess what?  It really is worth trying!  I followed Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe, here because I liked the fact that it kept things pretty simple (I mean, in terms of additions to the stewed tomato and pepper mix.)  I can see how adding a garnish of feta, or herbed yoghurt or cooking some chorizo or something in with the vegetables would work well, but loved it just as it was.  It's great for brunch because you can make the sauce the day before (which probably improves the flavour anyway) and then just cook the eggs in the morning.  Although I have to say this: his recipe suggests that you make the sauce then divide it between four pans before cooking with the eggs.  This sounds like a lot of washing up to me.  I cooked the vegetables in a large, shallow, stove-top casserole dish and just broke the eggs into that.  Much simpler.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Recipe corner: Courgette and halloumi cakes

We're trying to get back into the habit of Sunday brunch because it is a very lovely habit to have.  The main issue that I have with Sunday brunch is that it usually takes place quite early - certainly early enough that I want to limit the number of processes involved and my exposure to things that are sharp and hot.  This one, while not immediately screaming of breakfast foodstuffs, actually fits the bill pretty well because you can get the cakes prepared the night before and, actually, they benefit from a few hours chilling and firming up in the fridge.

The original recipe was a Gordon Ramsay one which I have, as is ever my wont, tweaked a little bit.  We topped the little cakes with a poached egg and a drizzle of Sriracha hot sauce to make it brunch appropriate.  I reckon they'd be nice as a light, summery main meal with some sort of salad and grain, or even whacked in a bun to make a vegetarian alternative to a burger.

It doesn't really need saying but, just in case someone has stumbled on to this accidentally, excuse the bloody awful food photography.  I succeed in making everything look terrible,


Courgette, coarsely grated
Carrot, coarsely grated
120g halloumi, grated
60g (about 1 slice from a standard, thick sliced loaf) bread, reduced to crumbs
15g Parmesan
Zest of 1/4 small lemon
Tsp oregano
Flour, for dusting
Tbsp vegetable oil

To serve (optional):
2 eggs
Hot sauce

Place a sieve or a colander over the sink and, inside, layer up the courgette and carrot gratings (is this the word?) along with some generous pinches of salt.  Set aside for half an hour or so.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, place the grated halloumi.

Blitz your bread into crumbs using a small processor.  Add the roughly chopped Parmesan along with seasoning and the oregano and blitz again to form fine, cheesy crumbs.  Tip this into the bowl alongside the halloumi and grate in the lemon zest.

When the vegetables have had sufficient time to give up some of their water content, give them a quick rinse and a thorough wring-out.  Pat them dry on a bit of kitchen paper and then whack into the bowl, along with one egg.  Mix thoroughly to form a sort of loose, colourful dough.

Lightly dust a large plate with flour and then dampen your hands, which will make it easier to form the cakes without the mixture sticking everywhere.  I got six little patties out of this amount, but makes as many as you wish depending on how you intend to serve them.  When the patties are formed, put on the floured plate and turn over a couple of times to lightly coat.

Cover with cling film and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.  If you're cooking them for breakfast then overnight is perfect.

When the time comes to serve, heat the oil up in a good, non-stick frying pan (alternatively, we have taken to lining the base of our pans with non-stick baking paper.  If you do this, you can dispense with the oil altogether, or you can brush it lightly over the surface prior to cooking).  Fry the patties for around 5 minutes on the first side then gently turn over and cook for a further 3-4, until a decent crust has formed and they are warmed through.

If you are serving these with a poached egg then be sure to have the pan of water ready boiling when the cakes go in to fry and just drop the eggs in for the last couple of minutes of cooking.

Serve according to taste.

Monday, 31 July 2017

MPM: 31st July 2017

Pay day!  Hurrah!  The meal plan last week was abandoned to a certain extent when we realised that we had more food in the fridge / freezer than we had money in the bank (an exaggeration, but you get my drift).  Hence it may seem slightly repetitious this week since dishes got bumped into that glorious hinterland where wallets are full again.  Not that our wallets are ever that full seeing as how we are civil servants and the Government hates us and wants us and our children and pets to suffer.  Again, I exaggerate and again, I digress.

It's hard to believe, especially given the appalling weather that we have had recently, that we are now entering into the last gasps of Summer.  Here's hoping that August decides to be kind to us and brings some sunshine.

We're fasting on Monday and Thursday this week, so that will be soup, as per.  On Wednesday, we are going to Shears Yard for a five course tasting menu paired with Sipsmith gin cocktails.  The menu looks fantastic - check it out here; the only concern being that I hate being out on a school night.  To atone, the weekend will be a model of restraint and decorum and will probably involve quite a lot of doing stuff in the garden if the weather would be so kind as to stay dry.  Elsewhere:

Tuesday: Crab tart with a side dish of spiced courgette couscous.  Leftovers of both will do us for lunch on Wednesday and Friday.

Friday:  Chicken Caesar burgers.  However, we're taking the original recipe and, er, messing with it a bit to make it more exciting.

Saturday:  Pepper and lime crusted tuna with mustard cucumber "spaghetti".  I think that I've blogged this one before...yes, here it is.  Gorgeous.

Sunday:  We're trialling a couple of dishes for a forthcoming dinner party with my parents so I don't want to go into any detail in case they're awful and we have to rethink the menu, but courgettes and lamb will be involved in some shape or form.

Have a lovely week folks!