Thursday 16 July 2015

Dining out with Demons

Location: Oxford, Oxford, UK
Published in the Jun/July edition of Vale Life Magazine

The chocolate's at the bottom of the bowl, right?
With two boys now nearing ages two and four, dining out is starting to become... let's say challenging. Before the boys were born we would happily indulge in a meal out whenever it took our fancy, at whatever time of day we fancied, in whatever restaurant we fancied. No worrying about fitting meals in around nap times, no fretting about children’s menus and the availability of highchairs.

Even when the kids were little, we could just leave them sat next to us in their car seat and they'd happily sleep all the way through the meal.

Not these days. These days dining out can be sheer and utter hell.

It's not that the boys are badly behaved, they're just typical, run-of-the-mill, kids. And most restaurants are adept at managing tables with children. I wrote once before about how impressed I’d been with the child friendliness of local restaurants, however all changed when I stepped foot in a particular, recently reopened, Oxford pub.

Visiting with a group of mums and kids, we experienced quite possibly the worst customer service I’ve encountered yet. An absurdly rude owner, parent to four as he told us (*slow clap*), questioned our ability to “control our children” after an exhaustive wait for food led to them become rather restless. And that’s only one of a long list of issues there.

The whole experience left me furious, the man an utter arse. But that’s not to say I don’t get that kids in restaurants can be annoying. To be frank, I find dining out with them pretty frustrating myself.  Let me be clear, I love my kids to bits, but God do I miss those uncomplicated pre-child meals. I miss the peace and quiet. I miss not having a giant bag stuffed full to the brim with nappies, distracting toys, baby wipes, nappy creme and multiple changes of clothing. I miss eating food with a knife AND fork, instead of stabbing at bits of food with one hand whilst wrangling a child with the other. 

But what should we do once we’ve made the decision to bring another little human into the world - never dine out with them? I’m no fan of unsupervised children running around in restaurants, or staying at the table while they cry, that’s got ‘take it outside’ written all over it, but sod avoiding restaurants altogether. It might be tough work but I think it’s far more productive teaching kids early about table manners and how (or not) to behave in public. That, plus the fact we’d all go stir crazy if we were stuck at home for EVERY SINGLE MEAL.

So next time you find yourself twitching at the noise coming from the ‘brats’ at the table in the corner, feel for the parents who are sitting right in the middle of it. Unless they’re taking no notice while the kids whoop around the place, in which case you have my full backing to evil glare.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Meal Planning Like a Pro

Location: Oxford, Oxford, UK

Before I had kids, when I was a suit wearing nine to sixer, I used to stock the fridge full of anything and everything I could possibly fancy that week. Lots of ready meals (hello Tesco Finest) and quick cook dinners like steak; things I could throw together in under half an hour while my stomach hungrily grumbled away. Mealtimes weren't all that healthy and were rarely seated at a proper dining table. Get changed, throw something tasty together, feet up on sofa - that was my ideal evening.

I never planned my meals out and ended up throwing loads of food away, especially meat and veg. The snacks and chocolate, however, well they always managed to get eaten… Funny that.

These days though, with an exercise mad husband and two growing boys to feed, on one income and a tight budget, I have to be a lot more economical and organised.

Every week now I sit down with a cuppa, armed with a notepad and pen, my online grocery basket and some source of inspiration. I mark out breakfast, lunch and dinner for Monday to Sunday, then gradually fill in the blanks with meals I want to cook that week. Once I’ve added in a few meals I’m particularly keen on, I see if there are any other dishes I can make with leftovers, or use the same ingredients for, to limit how much I need to order.

The BBC Good Food website has a fantastic selection of inspiring recipes, and Jamie Oliver’s “Save with Jamie” gives a great choice of ‘mothership’ dishes (usually big joints of meat or fish), from which leftovers can be turned into all sorts of interesting new things.

There are definitely still weeks where I leave it to the very last minute, then hop online in a blind panic the night before my delivery is due, throwing all my old ‘favourites’ back in the basket; you know, those ‘go to’ meals. In our house this entails some form of large roast, jacket potatoes, steak, sausages, chicken breasts for some form of curry, another large joint of meat for spreading across two nights, plus some sort of fish dish. With little time to think about which veg I actually need for each dinner (let alone lunch), I always end up missing things then having to do multiple mini shops during the week. These are also the weeks I end up ordering things I don’t need, intending to use them up, then ultimately throwing them away. 

So while the pennies are being saved and evening meals are so much less stressful, without any last minute panicking about what to cook, I think I’ll keep up the menu planning.

In fact, I’ve got a couple of hours to spare now while the kids are in bed. My hot chocolate awaits, with a couple of new cookery books and the latest series of Game of Thrones at the ready. Sounds like the perfect opportunity to fill up that empty shopping basket!

You can find a really good meal planner template over on A Crafty Chai

Thursday 12 March 2015

This isn't just ANY food...

Location: Oxford, Oxford, UK

When it comes to quality food, you know you can't go far wrong with Marks & Spencer. Granted, it may not be the cheapest, but you get what you pay for, and you know it's alway going to taste great. And if you want something really tasty while saving the pennies, they run those handy 'Dine in for £10' offers including main course, side dish, dessert and bottle of wine.

In my previous life as a suit-wearing office worker, I used to pop in all the time for my lunch. I'd grab some of their huge, juicy, clementine-sized 'King Strawberries' in Summer, a comforting heart casserole in Winter, or - if watching the calories - one of their 'Count On Us' meals. Not forgetting the odd packet of Percy Pigs, obviously. Mr Foodie, a competing triathlete these day, regularly buys their 'Fuller for Longer' meals for lunch, then spends the evening boring me boasting about how long he can go afterwards without wanting more food (probably while I've been nibbling away on biscuits).

So, when I was offered the chance to try a few samples from M&S recently, I managed to restrain myself from all out biting their hands off and very casually accepted the offer.

Arriving a few days later in the post was a set of goodies designed as gifts - champagne truffles, chocolate 'Love Bugs', luxury fudge, herbal tea, chocolate covered nuts and heart shaped biscuits.

Oh alright then, if I must!

The 'Pink Marc De Champagne Truffles' got it first. Dusted with free dried strawberries, their outer chocolate shells giving way to a smooth champagne spiked truffle underbellies. I managed to savour these over the course of a few days, hiding them well away from the kids (and Mr Foodie), and they definitely felt like a treat.

I can't say the same for the 'Love Bugs'. These got stolen almost immediately by the Mini Foodies. The few I did manage to wrestle free of tiny paws were delicious, with an unexpected caramel filling.

Chocolate Caramel Love Bugs
Champagne Truffles

Luxury Fudge Selection
Vanilla Fondant Biscuits

The 'Nuts About You' - caramelised nuts smothered in chocolate with butterscotch pieces - were so moorish they barely lasted an evening, with Mr Foodie snaffling most of them. Where's your triathlon diet now MrF?! The 'Lovers Heart' biscuits covered with vanilla fondant and raspberry pieces didn't last much longer either.

I admit to not trying the aniseed, fennel & liquorice tea yet, but the tube of Luxury Fudge - Oh. My. Word - Australian Ginger Fudge and Cornish Clotted Cream Fudge to be exact, talk about addictive! I'm drooling just thinking about them. They tasted just like the Scottish tablet I used to eat as a child, only softer.

So, if you're reading this Mini Foodies, Mummy would be more than happy with a big box of champagne truffles and a couple of packets of fudge for Mother's Day this Sunday pretty please. Oh, and a full eight hours of sleep, thank you very much. Love Mum x

The samples were provided as gifts by Marks & Spencer for sampling

Monday 23 February 2015

Steamers Aren't a Girl's Best Friend

Location: Oxford, Oxford, UK
Published in the Feb/Mar edition of Vale Life Magazine

Several years ago, someone (naming no names) bought me the biggest Christmas present ever. It sat majestically under the Christmas tree, larger than any other gift, and I had absolutely no idea what it was. I was so very excited. I tried every means possible to work out what it was. I sniffed it. I felt every angle of it. I shook it. I still had no idea what it was.

On Christmas Day, I left that great big present to the very end, like the most desirable sweetie in the bag. When the time came to finally unwrap my huge gift, excitement levels were at an all time high. Gently, I slowly peeled back the wrapping paper, savouring the anticipation. Then suddenly the contents were revealed. A great, big, almost industrial sized, electric food steamer. Yes. Never have I been so disappointed.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t grateful, it was a thoughtful(ish) gift - I do like to cook after all. It was just that small (or rather large, in this case) kitchen appliances are not gifts - they are simply kitchen appliances. Functional. What became of the giant steamer? I used it once, then it was packed up never to see light of day again.

Having recently read an article about a new butter mill that will magically "transform your cold block of butter into beautiful spreadable ribbons" - can't you just use a butter dish and not put it in the fridge?! - it got me thinking about all those other pointless kitchen gadgets that have probably made their way to the back of a cupboard already, now the Christmas decorations are all packed away.

Spreadable butter for all! (Picture: Cooks Innovations)

Here are a few of my favourites…

Egg, banana or avocado slicers - really? You can't use cutlery? Unless you're eating them by the dozen, you probably don't need a specific tool to slice them up.

Fruit peelers - come on, you don't even need cutlery for this, use your fingers or just a regular peeler!

Twirling forks - love spaghetti? Too lazy to twirl your own fork? This gadget is definitely for you!

Steamers - less of a pointless gadget, but if you are going to buy one, make sure the person actually wants one. Or at the very least make sure they won't need to build an extension just to fit it in the house

So in case you are wondering what to buy for the lady in your life, here's a little tip - steer well clear of the kitchen appliances, foodie or not. May I please direct you to the jewellery store further down the road. And no, not the cheap one either. “Steamers and cubic zirconia are a girl’s best friend”, said no one ever.

Sunday 11 January 2015

Recipe - Easy Peasy Rock Cakes

Location: Oxford, Oxford, UK

I've never watched Great British Bake Off before. There, I've said it [runs for cover]. Before last year that is. Last year I watched GBBO for the very first time and realised what everyone else did ages ago, that it’s awesome! I’m not someone who generally enjoys baking, but watching all the drama unfold - those sideways sneaky peaks at neighbouring kitchenettes, the ‘to prove or not to prove’ dilemmas, the show-stopping show-stoppers, coupled with Paul Hollywood stalking his way round each of the contestants’ benches like a lion with its prey - I could barely tear my eyes away.

Seeing all those delicious creations almost sent me running straight for the kitchen to immerse myself in a dust cloud of flour and icing sugar. Not quite though, because I’m simply not a baker at heart – and heart, I think, is required. When it comes to working with food, you have to love what you do.; otherwise that lack of passion will ring through every mouthful.

Though not a natural Mary Berry, I am occasionally tempted to step into the bakery arena and have one little recipe that saves the day every time I fancy something baked, sweet and homemade – the ever so humble Rock Cake.

Five minutes to prepare, then 15-20 minutes in a hot oven and BOOM, instant gratification. The husband loves them, the kids love them, plus they can be made large or small enough for packed lunches, biscuit tins… or simply stuffing straight into your mouth. Now this is home baking I can enjoy.

So as a change to my usual wittering on, and for all you other non-bakers out there, I’m going to share the easiest recipe of all (other than MrF’s ‘cheese on toast rules’), my mother-in-law’s Rock Cakes.

You will need…
8oz/225g self raising flour
3oz/85g sugar (I use golden caster sugar)
3oz/85g margarine (I use unsalted butter)
4oz/115g sultanas
One egg, beaten
Some milk
  • Mix the flour and sugar into a bowl, then rub in the margarine/butter.
  • Mix in sultanas.
  • Mix in the egg and enough milk to form a stiff dough.
  • Form into 10-15 rough heaps and place onto a greased baking tray.
  • Bake in hot oven (425-450°F/220-230°C/Gas 7-8) for approx. 14-20 minutes until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out dry.
Pop them on a cooling rack if you have one, until ready to eat – et voila, perfectly formed little handfuls of subtlety sweet, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside cake. Good bake, as the queen of baking, might say. Just make sure you get in there early, they go really fast. 
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