You’d be right in saying that I’m a little bit cynical about Baby Showers. Ok, let’s not beat about the bush, I frickin’ hate the modern day concept. They are all about expensive gifts and ridiculous games; much akin to the materialism that has taken over Christmas.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the meaning behind them is sound…I just think it’s got lost in translation. It should be all about friends and family getting together to show their support to the soon-to-be-mother, sharing her excitement and easing her fears of the unknown. It’s an opportunity to heap love upon her (though not in the way the father did 8 months or so before!) and confirm to her that she’s surrounded by people that care and will be there for her when faced by the trials that having a new born can bring.
The predicament for me is that my best pal is just two weeks (or sooner) away from having her first child. And despite my prejudices towards baby showers, I had to do something to show her that we care. So I pondered what I thought the celebration was about and that’s where the idea of the ‘Casserole Party’ came from.
I’ve got lots of friends with children. I’ve seen them blooming throughout the pregnancy and then I’ve seen them blooming crazy when existing on virtually no sleep. I’ve seen even the most organised and enthusiastic cooks lose all desire and ability to spend time in the kitchen when there’s a new born demanding attention; feeding the child becomes the priority, feeding yourself, an unfortunate afterthought.
Many expectant mothers take on a spot of batch cooking prior to the birth – filling the freezer full of home-made ‘ready meals’ –giving them one less thing to worry about in the weeks to come. So, I thought it would be great if we were able to assist in this process. Armed with a list of what food goes down well in her household, I instructed (bossy, as I am) friends to bring freezer-friendly containers full of home-cooked dinners, complete with any special cooking instructions. Offers of cottage pie, vegetable curry, meatballs, bolognaise and chilli sprung forth and thus the deed of giving was arranged. Now instead of shopping in Mothercare, we’ve all been able to show our love and support in the nicest way possible – by spending time cooking the new mother and her husband dinners for the days to come when they will need to be looked after.
On top of our freezer ‘donations’ we’re all gathering around the expectant mother’s house today, taking with us some more food to lunch upon. This gives us to opportunity to present our gifts, whilst showing our affections and sharing in the excitement of her pregnancy. After all, there’s nothing us ladies like more than a good chat and a gossip over lunch, is there?!
I can’t help but think this is how friends would have done a ‘baby shower’ in the old days before America introduced us to the concept of ‘nappy cakes’ and baby shower gift lists. And it feels nice. It feels right.
After all, what’s better than the gift of food?
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything. But I was beginning to feel that if I didn’t take some time out to reflect and capture some of my thoughts on paper/screen then I would be in danger of life dashing off with them; never to be remembered. So here I am.
I’ve feel that I’ve been too busy to blog and yet, I’m struggling to think what it is I’ve actually been doing for these past months. And therein lies my problem – if I don’t stop myself in the midst of my ‘busyness’, I lose all perspective about why it was that I was so busy in the first place. I don’t reward and congratulate myself for my achievements as I’m too busy to notice what they are. And sometimes, time for the naked truth now, I’m not really busy at all. I’m just filling my life with pointless guff.
Take Candy Crush for instance. Not heard of it? It’s this highly addictive game that my friends told me about on Facebook. Oh and you can download it via an app on your smartphone too. But don’t. I got to about level 135 before I realised I had quite possibly spent the equivalent of three full days, or more, of my life playing it. And what had I achieved at the end of it? Was I more intelligent? My husband assures me not. Had I learnt anything? Only how fat my fingers are, as I accidentally moved the wrong piece on my touch screen. Did I feel rewarded? Frustrated at not being able to complete levels quicker, yes. Rewarded, no.
Yet, when I look at my handy Toodledo app (yes, I do have a penchant for smartphone apps – especially ones that organise my life for me!) I see that I could have used those three whole days to tackle some of the jobs that I’ve been putting off for months. You could have asked me, “Dawn, what have you been doing with yourself” and I could have chirpily replied: “Well, I’ve repainted the front door/finished my shoes shelves/eBayed all that crap that’s been cluttering up the spare room for a year and made some cash so we can pay to get the kitchen repainted. You should come round for dinner so you can see how nice the house looks”. But instead, I’m hiding up in the spare room, trying to ignore the pile of crap that I haven’t yet eBayed, not glancing at the unfinished shoe shelves and hoping that the neighbour who just knocked to speak to my husband didn’t notice how incredibly shabby the front door is looking.
So, I’m glad I’ve invested the last 30 minutes in writing these thoughts down. They’ve given me perspective and reminded me that, whilst it’s great to spend time relaxing and socialising, and even swapping thoughts, ideas, news and information on sites like Twitter and Facebook, there is no room in my life for pointless, time-sapping activities.
Oh, and I’ve deleted the Candy Crush app.
I haven’t yet found anybody that doesn’t like Afternoon Tea. After all, what’s not to love? Ickle little sandwiches with enough filling to tantalise your taste buds but not enough that you haven’t then got room for a bucket load of cake. And then there’s the cakes; some small enough that you can just pop them in whole, others that take a greedier three or four bites before the crumbs are all that’s left of them.
I recently celebrated my birthday and when deciding what to do to mark the occasion that would be fun, but befitting of the fact that my friends and I are now actually pretending to be grown-ups and like to act accordingly, we landed on the idea of Afternoon Tea. Though there are many good providers out there, in beautiful country or inner city settings, we thought it would be more creative and rewarding (not to mention a darn sight cheaper!) to create our own. Everyone ‘bagsied’ a dish to make (or procure…for those less confident in the kitchen), ensuring that we had the essential sandwiches and scones on that list.
The result was magnificent. From the five of us we had a beautiful spread of delicious sandwiches, freshly-baked scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream, crisp tartlets filled with crème anglaise and topped with raspberries and passion fruit, the most perfect macaroons, melt-in-the-mouth and still warm cheese gougères and delightful chocolate-coated Viennese fingers, sandwiched together with soft marshmallow. The last two were my own offering to the party, and despite some challenges I had making them, the Viennese fingers were amazing, so I thought I’d share the recipe, complete with all the lessons I learnt along the way!
Makes about 10 finger sandwiches.
For the Viennese fingers:
100g salted butter, softened with your mixer
25g icing sugar
100g plain flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
You’ll also need a strong piping bag or a metal piping set.
For the chocolate:
100g plain chocolate
For the marshmallow filling:
1 egg white
pinch of cream of tartar
60g caster sugar
75g marshmallows (I used the white ones in a bag of Pinks and Whites, meaning I had to eat all the pink ones. Such a shame.)
- Pre-heat your oven to 190˚C/375˚F/Gas Mark 5 and lightly grease two large, or three standard baking trays.
- Beat the butter and icing sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Then add the flour and baking powder, beating until fully combined.
- Spoon the mixture into a strong piping bag, or piping set, fitted with a medium-sized star nozzle. I tried this using a plastic piping bag to start with but the mixture is so stiff, I just split the bag. So use a material bag, or as I did, a metal piping set.
- Pipe out finger shapes, about 6cm in length and 2.5cm in width. Bake in the oven for about 12 minutes, until they are a pale golden brown. Allow to cool for a couple of minutes before lifting off with a palette knife and cool them on a wire rack.
- Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water, or in a microwave. Transfer to a small pot so that the chocolate is fairly deep and easy to dip into.
- Cut a large square of baking parchment or greaseproof paper and lay flat. One by one, dip both ends of the biscuits in the chocolate and lay them, flat side down, onto the paper. Leave to harden completely.
- Once the chocolate on your biscuits is complete set, you can make the filling. In a heatproof bowl, whisk the egg white with the pinch of cream of tartar until you have soft peaks.
- Then gradually whisk in the sugar until it has dissolved and you have a shiny meringue mixture.
- Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water and drop in the marshmallows. Whisk constantly for five minutes, then remove from the heat. Continue to whisk for another five minutes.
- Cool for 15 minutes before spooning into a piping bag (plastic one is fine this time around!) and pipe onto the flat side of half your biscuits, sandwiching them together with the other half. Leave to set and then scoff.
So I’ve spent a lot of time recently explaining to people how I’ve successfully managed to lose two stone easily, over a six month period (so nice and slowly and it’s all stayed off as a result), through low-carb eating, and how I’ll never go back to my previous habits. In a previous post I described that this was as a result of reading a book called ‘Why we get fat and what to do about it’ by Gary Taubes and I still stand firmly beside this.
But as not everyone can be bothered to read this book, I thought it might be useful if I explained how I’ve adjusted to low-carbohydrate living in a world that is literally bursting at the seams with them. So here we go – a whirlwind tour of everything I think you need to know:
1. Read the book. Ok, it was worth another try. But seriously, it’s not some nonsense diet book, it gives you all the biological facts about what certain foods to do your body and why some are great and others not so. Forget about eating everything in moderation, there are some things that you should just avoid like the plague.
2. Prepare to question everything you’ve been told throughout your life. Five a day – the Government just made that up. Low-fat is good for you – not true. Every balanced meal should be made up largely of carbohydrates – only if you don’t mind gaining weight.
3. Body shape is carried through the genes. So you really could end up looking like your mum or dad. Be realistic with your expectations. Some people will be able to eat what the hell they like and stay super slim. But it might not mean that they are healthy on the inside…don’t be fooled.
4. Stop thinking that you need lots of carbs to give you energy – you don’t. If you adopt a low-carb diet your body will start burning fat instead. This is called ketosis. This means that your body takes the fat that you are eating (dietary fat) and what it needs from your fat cells (stored fat) and circulates it round your body to feed your vital organs. If you’ve got excess fat on your body, this will reduce at a healthy pace.
5. A bit of the science: When you eat/drink carbs, your blood sugar rises quickly. To reduce it back to a normal level, your body releases insulin. Insulin is bad for anyone trying to lose weight as it’s like the gate keeper to all your fat cells – it locks them up so the fat can’t get out. And if your body doesn’t burn all the carbs you’ve eaten as energy (and if you’re quite sedentary after a meal, there’s a good chance it won’t), then these will turn to fat and be stored as well. In fact, your body stores excess carbs as fat quicker than it stores actual dietary fat as fat. Which leads me nicely onto the next point.
6. Natural fats, such as those found in Olive Oil, Butter, Cheese, Cream, Nuts, Avocados etc, are GOOD FOR YOU! Read it and weep with joy, baby! It’s just those horrible, chemically formed transfats that you need to avoid like the plague. And the easiest way to do that is to avoid pre-prepared foods, such as ready meals and diet products. If it says ‘low-fat’, leave it on the supermarket shelf!
7. Stop thinking of meals in a traditional way. Ideally, you’ll eat a large breakfast, and healthy-sized lunch and enough dinner to fill you up but no more. After all, your body wants to be resting and restoring when it goes to bed, not trying to digest an epic portion. Oh, and a couple of snacks during the day are good, providing you’re hungry and aren’t just eating for the sake of it. And what you eat is the real make or break. Every meal should be made up of three components: Protein (from meat, fish, eggs, tofu etc), fat (from cheese, cream, butter, healthy oils, nuts etc) and some vegetables (or tomatoes!), preferably leafy green ones that are rich in fibre. And every snack should be made up of protein/fat and veg, such a cream cheese and celery, or ham and cucumber. So forget cereal and toast for breakfast, though a fry-up is an option, providing you include some mushrooms and/or tomato. Sandwiches are a no-no for lunch, so you’ll need to think ahead. And that’s my next point…
8. Plan ahead. The one downside to low-carb is that you do have to be organised. Food sellers largely cater for high carb-eaters so if you don’t think ahead, you might find yourself with nothing to eat. And that’s not a healthy option. So make sure you’ve always got a few things to snack on at hand (individual cheese portions and cherry tomatoes are my saviour) and be one day ahead with your meal planning.
9. Don’t be afraid to ask. Eating out low-carb is easier than you think, but only if you get temptation removed. So if your dish is normally served with potatoes or chips, ask them to leave them off and give you more salad or veg instead. Don’t even scan the pasta section of the menu. And cheese is the only thing you could even begin to contemplate on the dessert menu, so why bother looking? Are you even hungry anyway by this point?
10. When you reach your ideal weight, you can re-introduce some carbs back into your diet, but if you’ve read the book you’ll know to be choosy about which ones to introduce on a regular basis. The rule of thumb I work to is natural carbs are going to be better for you than those that have been made. So for example, lentils and rice are natural products, but pasta and bread have been created using refined flour – no natural goodness in these… But you can see how it works for yourself. Eat what you like and if the weight starts creeping back on (known as ‘carb-creep’) you’ll know you have to be a bit more picky about what you’re choosing.
11. Low-carb food is stuff that has less than 5% carbs. So if there is nutrional content on the back have a look at how many grams/milliletres of carbs there are per 100g/ml. Also check out the fibre content. Subtract the fibre content from the carbs and if it’s less then 5, you’re good to go. The reason for this is that even though fibre is a type of carb, the body does not ingest it and it does not affect your blood sugar either. So carbs high in fibre (such as leafy greens) are the good guys. Most meat and fish, in it’s natural state, is low-carb, though don’t eat too many mussels or clams. The sweeter the vegetable, the higher the carbs, so go easier on the sweetcorn, peas, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and squashes etc. Oh, and potatoes, of course, are a no-no.
12. I used to think I couldn’t live without pasta and chocolate. Turns out I can. Try low-carb for two weeks and your sweet tooth will disappear. You also don’t have to forgo these foods entirely; the 80/20 rule works out just fine. 80% low-carb will still allow you to lose weight and feel more alert and healthy. Once you’ve done it for a little while you’ll find it easy to make smart choices and you’ll automatically gravitate to low-carb foods. Especially once you’ve had a relapse, eaten lots of carbs and then feel really unwell as a result – that soon talks you back round.
I hope there is some useful stuff for you in here. If you’ve got any questions, please do just ask, but again, I would urge you to read the book as it has all the answers. Good luck with your low-carbing; I hope it works for you too.
I’m a great fan of a New Year. It’s like a great big breath of fresh air – you don’t know what to expect, but there is an unspoken optimism of what lays ahead.
Although 2012 has been the best for me yet, what with my dream wedding and everything, I know it’s not been the case for everyone around me. So for those of you that have had tough times, I hope you’ll be able to take something meaningful from the challenges you’ve had and that 2013 will be a whole heap better for you.
I’ve always set myself New Year’s Resolutions, much to the amusement of my close friends (one year I think the number reached double figures and I had to enlist the help of a special little notepad just to remember them all). But this time, my husband has jumped on board. Not having been in the best of health himself all year, he’s agreed to try for a healthier lifestyle, and although he’s yet to read the book, he’s agreed to try low-carb living for a bit, to see if it improves his vitality. We’re also combining this with another of my favourite endeavours, which is frugality. Having splurged so much in 2012 on weddings, honeymoons and cars, we’ve decided that 2013 will be our Year of Frugality. And not just food this time, either.
So that gives me a lovely focus for this blog next year; low-carb and frugal recipes, which in itself can present a challenge; as low-carb means high protein, which in turn can mean more expense, but never fear…I’m an old hand at this now!
Here’s one of my Dad’s favourite recipes to start you off with. It was discovered thanks to a glut of courgettes on his new-found hobby (aka The Allotment) and has proved to be a big hit with everyone, including my self-declared courgette-hating husband. Sorry about the absence of any photos…I was too busy eating the soup to remember to take any!
Curried Courgette Soup
a large knob of butter
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon medium curry powder
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
4 courgettes, sliced
1 litre chicken stock
100ml single or double cream
1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the onion. Add the curry powder and season lightly with salt and cook over a gentle heat for 10 minutes, or until the onion has softened.
2. Add the chopped courgettes and cook until soft – this will be approximately another 10 minutes.
3. Add enough stock to cover the vegetables, bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 20 minutes.
4. Blend to a smooth consistency, add the cream and heat gently. Adjust seasoning accordingly and then serve.
Wishing you all a very Happy New Year. Here’s to good times ahead!
This is another one of the recipes that I recently cooked for Nick Coffer’s Weekend Kitchen on BBC Three Counties Radio. I don’t know how well it went down with the listeners (as we don’t get to find out how many people call in for the recipe fact sheet), but these samosas were a massive hit with the folks in the studio and the other guests on the programme with me. So for those of you that don’t hail from Beds, Herts or Bucks (or indeed, England) or who missed the show that week, here’s the recipe.
Sunflower oil, for deep-frying, plus 1 tablespoon for shallow frying
500g Lamb Mince
½ teaspoon Cumin Seeds
1 clove Garlic
½ Red Chilli, finely chopped
2cm Ginger Root, peeled and finely chopped
½ teaspoon ground Turmeric
½ teaspoon ground Coriander
½ teaspoon Garam Masala
small handful of fresh Coriander leaves, finely chopped
½ teaspoon fine Sea Salt
1 Onion, finely chopped
Sheets of Filo Pastry, sliced lengthways, about 8cm in width
1. Heat the tablespoon of oil in a frying pan and brown the lamb mince. Then add the cumin, garlic, chilli, ginger, turmeric, ground coriander, garam masala and salt. Mix well.
2. Stir through the fresh coriander and onion and remove from the heat.
3. Heat the oil for deep-frying.
4. Lay a length of Filo pastry out, keeping the remainder under a damp cloth so it doesn’t dry out. Pop a very heaped teaspoon at one end and fold the corner to the opposite side, to make a triangle shape. Then fold it over. Repeat in the opposite direction until you have no pastry left and you have a neat triangular parcel. Use water to seal the edges. Repeat until you have used all your filling.
5. Fry the samosas, a batch at a time, until they are golden brown. Drain on a kitchen towel and leave to cool slightly before serving.
6. Serve with a yoghurt or mango chutney dressing.
So a couple of weeks ago, I traipsed down the M1 to the greyer-than-usual Luton town centre, parking up at the BBC Three Counties Radio studios, ready to don my radio mic and spout some knowledgeable nonsense about food. For those of you that aren’t local, or even from the UK, Three Counties is a regional radio show that has a lovely Saturday lunchtime show called Weekend Kitchen.
Hosted by the larger than life Nick Coffer, the show invites food-loving, friendly chaps and chapesses to come and natter about food, sharing and tasting recipes and ideas, with the odd song thrown in just to keep the listeners on their toes.
As I was in my own kitchen again this Saturday at 12pm, I switched on the show for a little listen whilst I was decorating a cake. I have to say I was more than chuffed when they spoke to a regular listener of the show, asking about the recipe fact sheets that are available on request or to be downloaded from the website. My exhilaration came when she said that she would be cooking Cauliflower Rice that day – one of the recipes that I did on the show the previous week. I mean, it’s lovely that my Dad phones me up every week to let me know he’s tried the recipes from the blog (thanks Dad!), but it’s even more of a thrill when a complete stranger in High Wycombe is giving them a bash too.
So I guess what I’m saying is do let me know if you ever try any of my recipes. I’d quite simply love to hear from you!
Anyway, here is that Cauliflower Rice recipe, along with the Quick Butter Chicken that I served it with. Perfect for anyone in a hurry, following a low-carb regime, or wanting to incorporate more veg into your main meal. Or all of the above. Enjoy!
Quick Butter Chicken
Makes 4 portions
30g unsalted Butter
4 Chicken breasts (about 650-700g in total), cut into chunks
2 tablespoons Tandoori Paste
160ml Whipping Cream
2 tablespoons Flaked Almonds
handful of fresh Coriander leaves, finely chopped
Sea Salt and Black Pepper
- Heat 15g of the butter in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add the chicken, stirring, until lightly browned and almost cooked. Don’t over cook it here or cook it at too low a heat – it’ll just become rubbery. Takes about 4-5 minutes.
- Stir in the tandoori paste, coating all the chicken and cook for a minute. Then pour in the cream and simmer for about 5 minutes, until the sauce has thickened.
- Stir in the rest of the butter, the coriander leaves and the almonds. Check the seasons and add if necessary. Serve immediately with rice/cauliflower rice and spinach/wilted greens.
Makes 4-6 side portions
A Cauliflower, trimmed of leaves and the end of the stalk and chopped up finely in a food processor, or grated (which makes a tremendous mess, but is fun!)
60g unsalted Butter
2 Garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
2 Spring Onions, sliced
- If the cauliflower is moist, squeeze out any excess water.
- Melt the butter in a large frying pan over a medium heat and add the garlic, until softened. Pop in the cauliflower and salt and stir-fry for about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the spring onions and season to taste with the pepper, plus adding a little more salt if necessary. You could also add a spot of cream at this point if you fancy it.
- Serve with anything that you would normally serve with rice!