Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The inhumanity!

It is ten o clock on Wednesday morning.  The second fast day of the week is a few hours down.  Already, our fearless heroine is having to steel herself, screw her courage to the sticking place and generally just work hard to not have an almighty tantrum right in the middle of the office.

Yep, this is the same fearless heroine who quite frequently doesn't bother to eat breakfast on the days on which she goes to work.  So how, exactly, is today different?

I guess that we will file it under "The mind is a strange and wonderful thing".  And we will also do our best to remember that it will get easier again and, also, that a nice result on the scales will make all of this seem worthwhile.

I have moved my "official" (to no one but me) weigh in day to a Friday so that it falls after the two fast days and before the weekend bean-fest.  While logically I know that there is no real difference, again it comes down to mind games.  My lowest weekly weight tends to fall on a Friday so why not have that number as the one that I capture for posterity?  It also means that, should the second weekly fast fall on a Wednesday rather than a Thursday (as often happens) I might be less inclined to go off the rails and declare Thursday night the unofficial start to the weekend.  Might being the operative word.

And, in other news, I popped into M&S this morning to pick up my prawn layer salad (note to self: START MAKING YOUR OWN PACKED LUNCH YOU LAZY MARE) and came away with this instead:

Now we can all be a bit sniffy about supermarket sushi - it is not the real thing by any stretch of the imagination but I quite enjoy it on its own merits and it is perfect for fasting - plenty of textural variation and good, strong flavours make it seem more substantial than its calorie count (193!) would suggest.  I'm looking forward to lunchtime with the kind of fervour that is usually the prerogative of teenage girls waiting the new Harry Styles album.

Monday, 24 April 2017

MPM: 24th April 2017

There was no fasting for us last week (we were on holiday. At least, we were off work.  And we certainly don't need much excuse to avoid it).  I haven't checked the scales, but I suspect that a little bit of over indulgence over Easter will have nudged that needle up so we are back to two fast days this week with our nominated Days of Pain and Misery and Soup for Tea being today and Wednesday.

And, predictably, today has been rather horrid thus far.  I think fasting is made worse if you avoid it for a while.  My body has apparently forgotten just what it is like to be deprived of calories and gone into full on whingeing child mode.  I am filling up on fluids and reminding myself that tomorrow I can eat EVERYTHING.  As a psychological trick, it is surprisingly effective.

This is what the meal plan looks like this week:

Monday: soup

Tuesday: moussaka.  A Valentine Warner recipe that we originally intended to put together during the week that we Cooked his Book.  It was bumped but now it is back and I am very much looking forward to it, especially having seen Rick Stein eat moussaka on TV the other day (the Good Food channel are currently showing his Venice to Istanbul series).

Wednesday: soup

Thursday: er, moussaka again.  D is out for a team meal so I shall content myself with leftovers and trashy TV.

Friday: we're off to our beloved York to check out new-kid-on-the-restaurant-block, Skosh.  It had a fabulous write up in the Guardian recently, so we have high hopes.

Saturday: while in York we intend to visit an old haunt of ours, Henshelwood's deli, wherefrom we shall buy cheese, charcuterie and an eff-ton of their superlative chicken liver pate.  This shall all be consumed, carpet picnic style, on Saturday night with homemade bread and a yummy sounding Ottolenghi yoghurt and horseradish potato salad.

Sunday:  D is making pork and juniper sausages - a recipe of his own devising.  We shall probably end up eating these as sandwiches, with vestiges of the carpet picnic on the side.

And that's it from us this week - enjoy whatever it is you happen to be cooking and eating and have a FABULOUS bank holiday weekend!

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Black Swan, Oldstead

To celebrate (or commiserate) the fact that D and I first met thirteen years ago to the day, on Good Friday we pootled off to The Black Swan at Oldstead, it being some time since we enjoyed a Yorkshire Michelin star. The Black Swan has built quite the local reputation over the last few years but its profile was probably raised significantly by the fact that the extremely easy on the eye head chef, Tommy Banks, appeared on the BBC’s Great British Menu last year and cooked a dish at the final banquet.

If you like your foodie destinations remote and scenic, then this one will appeal. The village of Oldstead appears to consist of the restaurant, the house in which the restaurant guests stay, and a few sheep. We did catch sight of a couple of runners on the surrounding lanes who presumably came from somewhere, but it was certainly not obvious as to where. Oh, and further Instagram opportunities abound just down the road, where can be found a picturesque ruined abbey.

There is a relaxed bar area downstairs with a fireplace and a broad sweep of gleaming bar (sadly no cat – every country restaurant should have a cat) and then upstairs the restaurant proper spread across two rooms. It had a lovely, relaxed feel to it – well spaced, well sized tables (terribly important), an eclectic playlist that was set at just the right volume and the most charming set of waiting staff I’ve come across in a long time.

Gin and tonic
And what of the food? Well, the surrounding gardens are the source of many of the ingredients and the Black Swan’s whole ethos appears to be very much tied to local, seasonal eating. These terms are in danger of becoming clichéd but I certainly got the sense that, here at least, they were genuinely meant and that the kitchen strives to make the best of the land on which it sits. GBM fans may remember that Banks’s banquet dish was a celebration of the art of preserving and, sure enough, throughout the place were scattered jars of pickles and gently infusing fruit schnapps. The main constituents of one of the dishes, beetroot cooked in beef fat, had been harvested months earlier and then stored in a traditional clamp. Little things like this, that serve to root a restaurant’s food in place and tradition, are very important to me.

It may be another cliché, but I sensed a definite hint of Scandi in the style and sensibility of the cooking. Some of the flavour profiles reminded me of dishes I ate at Noma, as did the often sparse yet elegant presentation. This was particularly true of the sweet courses which eschewed traditional, hearty British desserts for something lighter, brighter and verging on the savoury at times. I adored the Douglas Fir parfait with sheep’s milk sorbet which sparkled on the tongue; the petit-four, a cake made from artichoke, chicory root and thyme was slightly less successful: it was interesting rather than delicious and I don’t necessarily want my cake to be interesting.

Douglas fir parfait
Slightly unfortunately, the high point of the meal came, for us both, with the very first mouthful – an amuse bouche (thus, doll-sized) tartlet of smoked eel and Lincolnshire Poacher. This was a single bite of utter deliciousness and set the bar so very high that none of the subsequent dishes managed to surpass it. A few came close: the afore mentioned Douglas Fir dessert, a venison tartare with onion puree which danced on the edge of being too darkly rich, a hazelnut and chicory parfait lollipop. It was also nice to see a chicken main course; served with a selection of aliums and draped with new season wild garlic, it was a salutary reminder that chicken, when responsibly reared and beautifully cooked, is a heavenly thing. It missed out on the top spot though because we both felt that some sort of additional element on the plate was required for perfection – I actually felt the lack of some sort of crispy, salty little potato element, but then I’m always slightly sad to see a plate without carbs.

Smoked eel tartlet 
Venison tartare
Minor quibbles aside, the general consensus was that this was very good indeed. To be honest, I’m not sure that it pips 64 Degrees in Brighton to the Year’s Best Meal (so far) but that is a question of personal taste rather than execution and there is no doubt that there was some serious skills on display here. Some of the most incredible meals I have ever eaten – my two favourite experiences remain Eleven Madison Park in New York and Five Senses in Barcelona – were made so because I believe that something genuinely exciting happens when a chef manages to look both forward and backwards, inwards and outwards. I think that Tommy Banks is such a chef, which, it therefore follows, means that The Black Swan has the potential to be such a restaurant. It is not there yet, but since he is the youngest holder of a Michelin star in the country, he has bags of time on his side and an establishment that is perfectly placed to enable him to achieve exciting things. Definitely one to watch.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Recipe corner: Mussels on toast

I’ve got behind on talking about the cook books / blogs that we used as the basis of our March meal plans. Which means you’ve been spared a blog post full of me banging on about how excellent all my old recipes are. (Although in all seriousness, I cooked five recipes from this blog’s back catalogue and they were all delicious. Yay me.)

During the week in which we cooked from Valentine Warner’s “The Good Table” there was, for me at least, one stand out dish. I’m usually a bit chary of sharing recipes here that appear in books or magazines because…y’know…copyright but this one happens to be posted on Mr Warner’s own website, so I figured that it wouldn’t cause any great harm if I reproduced it here as long as I linked to it. Voici le link.

It is such a simple idea that I am kicking myself for not thinking of it previously – creating a béchamel sauce using the wondrously fragrant, sea-redolent cooking liquor of the mussels and then stirring the little blighters through to create a rich, creamy pile of deliciousness. Yes, I am getting a little adjective heavy here but I thought it was that good. We’re coming to the end of mussel season now (if you hold by the old adage that you should only eat them if there is an “r” in the month) so maybe this is one to tuck behind your ear for a bit later on when the nights begin to draw in again. It is comfort food par excellence. Mr Warner suggests serving the mussels on toasted soda bread and the slightly dense, cakey texture does hold up particularly well here. I commend to you my very own soda bread recipe – it’s an absolute doddle to make and, I think, worth the effort in this case.


500g mussels, in the shell, cleaned and beards removed

25g butter
Level tablespoon plain flour
150ml milk
A good grating (perhaps ¼ tsp) of nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Small handful chopped curly leaf parsley

2 thick slices of soda bread, toasted Butter (optional)

Serves 2

Put the mussels in a large pan with a splash of water, cover and cook over a medium heat for 3-5 minutes until the shells have started to open. You may need to give them a good shake about half way through the cooking time to ensure that they are evenly distributed – also, it is an excellent stress reliever. 

Remove them using a slotted spoon and set aside. Strain the remaining juices into a small jug ready to make the sauce.

When they have cooled slightly, remove the mussel meat from the shells and hold them ready to go in the sauce. Discard any mussels which have failed to open at this point.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat. When it is just on the point of foaming, add the flour and stir briskly to make a paste – I always favour a wooden spoon for this operation. Continue to stir until the paste is beginning to dry out – you will notice that it starts to form a ball away from the sides of the pan.

Now you can add the strained mussel juice, a little bit at a time, stirring hard in between each addition until the sauce appears smooth. A liberal application of elbow grease is required here. Once the mussel juice has gone, start adding the milk in a similar fashion, until it has all been absorbed and you have a creamy white sauce.

Turn the heat up a smidge and allow the whole to simmer for 5 or so minutes. Then, add the nutmeg to taste (not too much – nutmeg can take over a party if you allow it), a pinch of salt (again, not too much, there is a natural salinity to the mussels) and plenty of black pepper. Finally, stir in the mussels and the parsley and heat for a further 30 seconds to ensure that the meat is warmed through.

Toast the bread, butter it if you wish (I always wish for more butter) and then spoon over the creamy mass of mussels and serve immediately.

Note: I am convinced that this would make a fabulous brunch dish, if you were looking for something a bit different. If you were planning on doing it for brunch, I would recommend making the béchamel and the soda bread the day before, and then all you would need to do in the morning is make toast and stir through the mussels. If you do ever make béchamel in advance, once it is cooled, cover with a layer of cling film directly touching the surface of the sauce – this will prevent a skin from forming.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

5:2 hero products

So far this year I have managed to finish each calendar month lighter than I started. Admittedly, in February the difference was less than a pound (whoops!) but the point still (just about) stands.  5:2 works.

While there's no denying that fast days themselves are rubbish, I have found one of the keys to getting through them so far is sticking to a fairly limited routine of foodstuffs. Variety and experimentation are for the rest of the week.

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I have always had a sneaky fondness for plastic cheese triangles and find these great for fast days. They're only 25 calories each but the texture and mouth-feel definitely make them seem more indulgent.  The cheese flavour is not pronounced but it is definitely there. They can be eaten alone in a pinch, but if I have calories to spare, I like them on an oatcake or similarly low calorie cracker for a bit of crunch.

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It goes without saying that fruit and veg are low in calories and high in bulk but it's these little beauties I find myself reaching for the most. Essential fast day fodder. Chop 'em and sprinkle with salt, pepper and balsamic vinegar.

OBVIOUSLY in an ideal world I would make a proper packed lunch every single day but, while I'm better about this than I used to be, I'm still capable of being ridiculously lazy. When I need to buy lunch on the go, this salad is what I reach for. It's a smidge over 200 calories but the Marie Rose sauce is pleasingly rich for such a meagre amount. I also like the fact that, although it is primarily veg, it contains a layer of pasta which (for me, a carb monster) gives it an additional satisfaction factor.

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Popcorn is a staple in our house at the moment. One of the things I miss when I'm fasting is the act of eating itself - actually chewing. Popcorn helps with this because you can have a decent portion for not very many calories and it takes a while to chomp through. And it's scrummy and feels like a treat (cinema / going out associations assist with this).
Have I missed anything blindingly obvious? Is there a product out there that will help make fast days more bearable? If there are any 5:2-ers out there who have other hero products to share then please...well, share

Monday, 10 April 2017

MPM: 10th April 2017

I don’t want to speak too soon…but it looks as if spring has finally sprung!  Oh frabjous day – isn’t it amazing the difference a bit of sunshine makes to one’s mood?

A shortened meal plan this week.  On Friday, we’re heading out to The Black Swan at Oldstead, somewhere we’ve been wanting to visit for a while. And on Sunday, it’s off to see the family for roast lamb.  With two fast days in there as well, that does not leave a lot of days to be planned. 

Tuesday: Aubergine cheesecake with wild rice and salad

Thursday: Leftover night: cold roast chicken, spiced couscous, aubergine cheesecake and whatever else happens to be lurking in the fridge

Saturday: Home made pizza night!  I’ll be doing a pissaladiere with goats’ cheese and mozzarella and D is re-visiting his Chicken Caesar Salad pizza which he created for my birthday a couple of years ago.  Sounds weird but, if you like pizza, chicken and Caesar salad there is a lot to love

Short but, hopefully, sweet.  Have a good week mes amies!