Sunday, 31 January 2010

Garden Organic Ryton

Yesterday, as the weather was glorious here in the Midlands (frost, a dusting of snow in some places, but bright, sunny and cold, but warmer in the sun!), I decided that this was the day to go for a wee trek around Garden Organic Ryton. I've been starting to get interested in the idea of growing some of my own produce and I thought this would be a good way to find out more about organic growing as well as getting some fresh air and (much-needed) exercise!

There wasn't an awful lot to see this time of year, but it gave us an idea of what sort of things are there, and there was a certain frosty beauty to the scenes we saw.




Ah, good old kale!
What we didn't realise when we set off is that we had arrived on Potato Day at Ryton Gardens, which might have explained why it was so busy at 10am on a cold January morning. Apparently, the world and his wife had turned up to buy potatoes for sowing. We had a quick look in the 'potato marquee', but it was very busy and all a bit daunting. We drifted towards the 'potato tasting' instead, which sounded jolly interesting, but they seemed to have run out of potato products to taste. 

On our way out I paused by a stall advertising something called the 'One Pot Pledge', intrigued by what it was. This was explained to us by an over-enthusiastic lady who told us that it is a scheme aimed at people who haven't really grown anything before to help get them started. Telling her that this applied to us made her even more excited, possibly because the majority of people passing through were well-seasoned potato growers who were visiting for potato day. I duly handed over my email address and apparently I will receive some free tips and things in exhange for pledging to grow at least one pot of something. I haven't got a link to share with you yet, as there doesn't seem to be anything on their website about it at present, but I look forward to receiving an email.

I would have liked to have eaten some lunch at the café on site, but there was already a very long queue and no free tables before lunchtime, so we headed off after a quick look round the (very busy) shop. 

It was a good visit and I would love to go back in Spring when more things are growing. It has helped inspire me to get on and grow some things and I am currently reading a couple of books specifically about growing in pots and in small spaces: Patio Produce and Grow Your Own Fruit & Veg in Plot, Pots or Growbags (I only have windowsills and a balcony to grow on). I also happened to mention to a work colleague who has an allotment that I was interested in growing some produce and she very kindly came into work one day having bought me some kit to get myself started!

Still feeling quite nervous about the whole thing, as I have a long and varied history in killing plants, but I do really want to give this a go. Something that has also given me some inspiration is a blog called The London Vegetable Garden, which is written by a guy who is growing produce on his London balcony. Let's see if I can have some similar success with my Coventry balcony!

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Burns' Night Supper at The Old Mill, 25/01/2010

On Monday night we had booked a table at The Old Mill for 8 to celebrate a birthday and to try their four-course Burns' Night Supper for £18.95 a head! Literature and food - my two favourite things!

We are semi-regulars at The Old Mill, as they do good food at reasonable prices in a relaxed, pub atmosphere. Unfortunately, I found this trip hugely disappointing - probably more so because it's one of our 'regulars'.

Firstly, we waited about half an hour before we even got to see the Burns' Night menu because the serving staff had seemed to have forgotten we were there (or there weren't enough, which seems more likely). Next we waited another 30 minutes before we were served our starters. By this point I was so hungry I devoured the food before I remembered to take a photo of it! Shocking! It was yummy though - I had chicken liver parfait with onion chutney, and it was really good: the paté was smooth and silky and was lovely smeared on bread with some butter and chutney. It's a shame such good food was let down by the service.

It was then starting to take a while for the next ('taster') course to arrive. There were discussions among those of us gathered about leaving and going somewhere else, but thought we'd try mentioning how long we'd been waiting first. To be fair to The Old Mill, they were very apologetic and gave us a free bottle of wine, and the next two courses were got to us more quickly.

The taster course was haggis topped with pastry, which was an interesting experience as I'd never actually tried haggis before! I liked it though (and, yes, I do know what it is made from!) and thought it went well with the pastry topping.

For my main course, I had chosen seared venison with neep and tattie rosti and seasonal vegetables. Venison was lovely, although a little overdone for my liking, and the rosti was amazing. Seasonal vegetables, though? Carrots, yes, ok... But peas and mangetout? They must have a different definition of 'seasonal' than I do.

Still, things had slightly improved thus far in our dining out experience. But then the manager lady who had been keeping an eye on things for us disappeared (as did everyone else) and again we waiting an age for our dessert. When the dessert did arrive, imagine how deflated I felt when I discovered that my 'Bonnie Chocolate Mousse with Drambuie Cream' contained less than a spoonful of chocolate mousse, the rest of the pot being filled with sickly cream. What a swizz. I clearly drew the short straw with this one because everyone else had more chocolate than I did.

We finally left the restaurant 3 hours after we'd arrived. Needless to say, we didn't leave a tip.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Garrick Inn and Malbec Petit Bistro

To celebrate our 2-year anniversary of togetherness, my fiancé and I have spent the weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon discovering the culinary delights it has to offer.

I had booked a table at Malbec Petit Bistro for Saturday evening, after doing a google search for award-winning restaurants in the local area. Malbec has won Michelin's Bib Gourmand, an award recognising good food at good value. More on this restaurant later, though.

We arrived in Stratford sometime after 11am, and once we'd checked into our hotel, we wandered around the town a bit before I decided it was time for lunch and we started looking at some menus from the wide variety of eating establishments in the town. I didn't want anything that was going to be too large a meal because of the booking we had in the evening, but equally I wanted more than just a sandwich. I was rather taken by the frontage of the Garrick Inn, not to mention its rich history (the plague arrived in Stratford here!) and tasty looking menu which included 'light bites' as well as main meals. And they were advertising mulled wine outside. How could I resist?

The Garrick Inn was cosy and warm and the staff were polite and friendly. I chose the Winter Ploughman's Platter from the 'light bites' menu, because it looked interesting. It came with squash soup (very tasty), chunks of bread, a pickled onion, salad and I chose to have Tickler Mature Cheddar Cheese, Pork, Apricot and Cider Terrine and Apple and Date Chutney. All very delicious, especially the chutney which was reminiscent of mincemeat. I don't know about 'light bite' though - it was quite large and I couldn't quite manage all of it, but I'm not complaining because it kept me going for the rest of the day!

My fiancé had the burger. Altogether we paid £20 for our lunch and that included alcoholic drinks, so prices are definitely reasonable. You can view the main menu here.

We were pretty tired by the evening, as we'd had a full day of walking round in the cold, so I was glad I'd booked the table for 7pm. Malbec Petit Bistro opens for evening business at 7pm and we were the first customers to arrive. The restaurant is quite small and intimate and I liked the warm decor and the relaxing music that was playing. Unfortunately, as the evening went on it was impossible to hear the music and it became a little too intimate for my liking - for while it is a lovely restaurant, it is small and it was very busy and the tables were very close together: I did feel a little like I was dining with the people to my left and right, which felt a bit of a shame seeing as we were celebrating our anniversary.

But, no matter, onto the food! The menu isn't huge, yet there's a good range of meals on there - I was tempted by lots of different things, including the mushroom starter and the Warwickshire lamb main. Many of the items were (fairly) local and seasonal, which was pleasing. In the end, I plumped for smoked eel as my starter, as I had never tried eel before and I was curious.

It was very good. It tasted a little like kippers and a little like smoked salmon. It seemed thicker than other kinds of fish, but was more fishy than I was expecting somehow. The carrot and walnut salad that accompanied it was also very good: I'm not a huge fan of nuts in salads, but this went some way to converting me. It was the dressing that really brought it all together.

For my main I stuck with the fish theme and had the lemon sole, which was very tasty indeed. I was intrigued by the white asparagus it was served with - I found it rather bland and tasteless unlike green asparagus, which was a shame. A fab idea to serve it with tagliatelli though - it went very well with the fish. (And, yes, I did nibble a bit before I remembered to take a photo!)

I was quite full after all of this, but decided I had to have a look at the dessert menu. I decided to share a dark chocolate marquise with banana ice-cream and toffee sauce with my fiancé.

The pudding really was stunning. The chocolate was so rich, the ice-cream so flavourful and the toffee sauce smooth and sweet - a perfect pudding! In fact, my fiancé and I both agreed that the starters and pudding outshone our main meals (my fiancé had a mushroom thing for starters and the venison pie for his main); not that the mains weren't lovely too.

I felt that the 'good value' part of the Bib Gourmand award very much depends on your personal circumstances and background. Yes, in a sense, we got very good food at a not unreasonable price considering the quality of food and ingredients; but at the same time for us this was about our limit in terms of prices we can justify spending in a restaurant (have a look at the sample menu on the website for ideas of prices - we had an apperitif, three courses and a fairly expensive bottle of wine, but for discretionary reasons I don't want to reveal just how much we paid on this occasion!).

Also, while it was wonderful and a delicious meal and I'm glad we had that experience, we were filled with expectations for this restaurant as its reputation preceded it. And it definitely met those expectations, but in a strange way this meant it lacked a certain sense of surprise and delight at how good the food and service was; whereas the food and service we received at the Garrick Inn, where we just stopped because we happened to be passing and knew very little about, was a complete joy because we had no preconceptions going in. I'm sure there's a lesson to be learnt here somewhere!

So, we'll definitely be returning to the Garrick Inn, we may return to Malbec if we're feeling flush, but we definitely won't be returning to the White Swan Hotel where we stayed the night. A general lack of good service, cleanliness and quiet made for a not particularly nice stay. I was not impressed with their breakfast either!

Friday, 22 January 2010

A tale of two vegetables

I've managed to use up a veg box and a half these week bar 2 apples, 2 potatoes and a tomato (all of which are still edible). Pretty good, huh?

I've had fun (as I always do) trying to come up with new and inventive ways to use the different vegetables this week. I used the lovely curly-leaf kale we got in this Kale and Chorizo Soup, which also meant I got to use my fresh home-made chicken stock. It was delicious - very filling and the strong flavour of the chorizo really complemented the kale very well. My cabbage-phobic fiancé even managed to eat some of the green stuff in his soup!

This evening I had a couple of parsnips to use up and wanted to cook something for which I already had all the ingredients I needed. This recipe for Mince with Parsnip and Potato Mash was therefore ideal. I doubled all the ingredients in the recipe as I was making it for two. It says to use a chefs' ring to make the mince and the mash into a lovely neat ring shape on your plate, but, as you can probably guess, I do not own a chefs' ring, so served the mince in bowls and just spooned the mash on top - I was actually rather taken with how good this ended up looking.

It tasted very nice too - a good hearty meal for a wet, cold Friday after a hard day's work! I felt perhaps I could have done with being slightly more generous with the spices in the mince to give it a bit more kick, but nevertheless it was tasty. The parsnip and potato mash, however, was a revelation and I loved the surprising, sweet bits of parsnip hidden within the potato! It contrasted particularly well with the mince. My fiancé disagreed with me on both counts and was not so keen on the parsnip in the mash, but thought the mince was fantastic. (He's got so much better at eating his vegetables since I've been around, but clearly he still needs some work.)

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Taking (or, rather, making) Stock

Both my fiancé and I have been unwell over the past week. After consultation with a doctor, I was relieved to discover it wasn't swine flu or malaria, but that it was some kind of viral flu/cold thing. As a result, the week's meal plans went out the window as neither of us had the energy to do very much for a good few days. This left us with something of a glut of vegetables, as we still had about half the previous week's veg box when our new one arrived on Friday.

I started feeling a little better this weekend and have been up and about more, so decided to use up a lot of the left over vegetables by making some stock, and I ended up making both a vegetable stock and a chicken stock, as we had a left-over chicken carcass too from Saturday night's dinner. I've been watching a lot of River Cottage on 4 on Demand recently and have been influenced by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's ideas about not wasting stuff, especially bits of animal. Documented below are my first ever attempts at making stock.

Both recipes I used were from Lindsey Bareham's A Celebration of Soup.

For the vegetable stock I used onion, carrot, celery, mushroom and trimmings of leek, broccoli and lettuce.

 Here's the finished product next to my Lindsey Bareham book:

Mmmm, stock.

Next, of course, I decided to go one step further and to boil up some tasty chicken bones.


And, the result:

I think the chicken one tastes better than the vegetable one: vegetable one seems a bit bland and I don't know if I chopped the vegetables small enough or cooked it for long enough. I had a bit of trouble with the chicken stock when I was trying to simmer it, because one setting on my hob was too low (i.e. it wasn't really simmering at all), but the next setting seemed too high, with it starting to boil! This meant a fun game of constantly switching between the two settings for 2 hours in an attempt to get it right. Why doesn't my hob have half settings?!

I've already used some of the vegetable stock to make this vegetable broth from BBC Food. And, er, it wasn't very nice. In fact I couldn't eat it and threw it away. I'm not sure if it was my stock being too weak, but it basically tasted like vegetables cooked in wine - now, I like wine with many things, but this was just an awful clash of flavours. Not a recipe I'll be cooking again.

 Finally, here is a blurry picture of my oven which I took by accident. Just because.

Monday, 11 January 2010

In Defence of Food - Progress Report

A few months ago I made a post about the changes I planned to make to my shopping and eating habits after reading Michael Pollan's In Defence of Food. I thought I'd update on how I've been doing.

We've been receiving a fruit and veg box weekly since the end of November. This has been one of the best food decisions I've ever decided to make. We not only spend less money in the supermarket now, we also spend less time in there (and that can only be a good thing!). It's damn convenient having your week's fruit and veg delivered to you in one box, and I also get excited about the different things I receive in my box each week - the lady who runs the scheme often asks if we want anything specific, but I love the surprise too much to ever specify anything. I have now cooked several vegetables I'd never cooked before, including fresh spinach, swede and parsnips and tasted new vegetables I never even knew existed such as kale and purple carrots! Having the fruit and veg box has vastly increased the volume and range of vegetables we eat, and most of it is local and it is all organic produce.

The thing I feared the most about the proposed changes to my diet was the switch to butter from the low-fat spread I had relied on to keep me vaguely thin and 'healthy' my entire adult life. I've now been having butter on my toast for 3 months or so. My net weight gain over this period has been zero; in fact I am probably down a pound or two. Ok, so I don't go crazy with the butter - I (mostly) have small amounts on my toast and in my sandwiches. And the increase in vegetable consumption has probably helped too. But this is fantastic news for me. I've spent so much of my life convinced that eating real butter would make me fat - and it would if I ate enough of it - but to eat butter in moderation is, I am now convinced, healthy and natural.

I've made other small changes too: I only buy natural yoghurt now, as I've yet to discover a flavoured yoghurt that doesn't contain artificial flavourings or preservatives. But it turns out I really like natural yoghurt - my favourite is Yeo Valley Organic. I find a snack of chopped fruit covered in creamy natural yoghurt a filling and delicious treat.

I now buy wholewheat pasta and am eating more wholegrain rice (although the other half is not too keen on the latter!).

We have started to use a local butcher's for some of our meat, but to be honest we could improve on this score and we still rely on the supermarket a little too much for my liking.

There are still several things I would like to improve on, but this is a work in progress and I think we have done really well with all the changes we've made so far. I think we could still do with eating a little less meat (this is difficult with my fiancé around!) and I would like to grow some more things of my own on our window sills and our balcony and get better at tending to plants (she says looking guiltily at the half-dead coriander plant). I would also like to start baking some more homemade bread, now that I have some idea how to do it!

Still, it's a step in the right direction. I look forward to reporting on my progress again in another few months' time!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Jamaican Pot Roast

For our Sunday roast this evening, we had a Jamaican Pot Roast from Levi Roots' Caribbean Food Made Easy. I really like this book for its clear, easy-to-follow instructions and the tasty meals that result!

I prepared the topside of beef yesterday evening, by using a pestle and mortar to crush some garlic, red chilli, ginger, spring onion and thyme together into a lumpy paste. I then made some deep-ish holes all over the beef using a small knife and pushed bits of the paste into each of these holes (messy job, this!). The marinade was prepared consisting of soy sauce, malt vinegar and dark brown sugar and rubbed all over the meat - the meat was then left over night in the fridge, loosely covered. You're meant to turn the meat occasionally but I forgot and only did so once! Oops!

This was most of the hard work done now. This afternoon, after patting the meat dry, I browned it all over in my stock-pot, then removed it to make way for the chopped onion and diced celery. Once this had softened, some beef stock, plum tomatoes, the left-over marinade and some thyme was all brought to the boil and then the beef added back in and left to simmer for about 2 hours. I added peeled potatoes and carrots and left it to simmer for another 40-45 mins, et voila!

The recipe says to use small, waxy potatoes - I used larger ones and cut them in half, but I should have cut them smaller because they were still a little firm at the end of cooking. I used about 0.8kg of beef rather than the 1.8kg listed in the recipe, as I was making it for 2 and the recipe is for 6 people (and we still have meat left over which will be used for sandwiches)! I halved the amount of ingredients for the paste and the marinade, but still used the same amount of onion, celery and stock. I put in about half the amount of carrots and potatoes it suggests, and it all still seemed to work quite well.

The beef was lovely and tender and filled with delicious, yet subtle, flavour. The sugar added a certain sweetness to the dish and I really felt it made a wonderfully refreshing change to having an English roast (I think I get fed up of English roasts fairly quickly if I have them too often!). Once again, Levi Roots comes up trumps. If you are interested in making this recipe for yourself, I recommend buying his book - it's only £5.99 on The Book People. Happy cooking!

Saturday, 9 January 2010

An award!

This award was given to me by Janice of Farmersgirl Kitchen - thank you! I'm very flattered that she enjoys my blog!

Apparently, you have to put the award image in your post (done!), then list 10 things that make you happy, and pass it on to 10 bloggers who brighten my day. So, here goes:

10 things that make me happy
1. My fiancé, obviously
2. Cooking!
3. My new chef's knife
4. Listening to Radio 4 in bed
5. Enjoying a nice dinner with friends
6. Buying cookery books or food-writing books
7. A nice hot bath with bubbles
8. Receiving my veg box once a week
9. A good bit of cheese and some wine
10. Pretty dresses

10 bloggers to whom I'm passing this award! (no particular order)

1. Suzler at Serenely Full
2. Jules at Butcher, Baker
3. Jo at Jo's Kitchen
6. Denise at Creative Kitchen
7. Teakay at Blogstronomy (yes, a non-food one!)
9. The Little Welsh at The Little Welsh Eats the Big World
10. Woody the Foodie at Woody the Foodie

Put a link to their blogs
Notify the award receivers.
Award recipients should link back to the sender's blog.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

New Year Nibbles (mediterranean vegetable cous cous & rocket and tomato salad)

We were supposed to be having a couple of family members over for games and nibbles on New Year’s Eve, but as I wasn’t very well we did it on New Year’s Day (yesterday) instead. We did provide some shop-bought nibbles such as sausage rolls, scotch eggs etc., but I thought I would have a go at providing some home-made food as well. Here are a couple of (very simple) things I made, along with recipes.

Mediterranean Vegetable Cous Cous

250g cous cous (the instant 'pour on boiling water' type)
350ml vegetable stock
knob of butter
1 red onion, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 yellow pepper, chopped
1 small/medium courgette, chopped
1 small/medium lemon, juice only
salt and pepper to taste

Make up the cous cous using very hot vegetable stock instead of plain boiling water. The packet of cous cous I have suggests 300ml of boiling water, but I find this a bit too dry and hard for my taste. Leave for about 5 minutes to absorb the stock. Add a knob (or two) of butter and mix in well.

Meanwhile, fry the chopped vegetables in a little olive oil until soft and beginning to brown. Add these to the cous cous and mix well. Pour on the lemon juice and season to taste. Can be served warm or cold, although I find that cous cous doesn't keep warm for very long!

Simple Rocket & Tomato salad

Bag of mixed rocket, watercress and baby spinach (or similar)
Cherry tomatoes, halved
Parmesan shavings
Basil-infused olive oil or extra-virgin olive oil

Place the salad leaves in a bowl and add the cherry tomatoes. Sprinkle with the parmesan and drizzle with the olive oil. I found the basil-infused olive oil really added a little something extra. Ridiculously simple to throw together, but looks and tastes great!

I also made another Chocolate Brownie Cake, but used a smaller cake tin this time so it came out fatter. Nearly had a slight disaster when I realised I didn't have quite enough chocolate for the recipe, but I ended up topping it up with chocolate coins! It worked a treat!