Cooking

My grief rituals

As I sit here writing this, it would have been my darling mother’s 89th birthday tomorrow, and whilst it is now nearly three years since she died, as I sat looking through photos, I felt the familiar wave of grief rise up again.

Admittedly, my emotions have been on a roller coaster over the past weeks and months as the lockdown has continued and the massive disruptions have taken their toll on me, as with everybody, but more than that, I have been conscious of Mother’s Day in the UK coming into view in a week or so.

Again, maybe because of the emotional highs and lows, but I have been feeling sad that I don’t have my mother here to send her a card.

So when my very clever emotionally astute 17 year old daughter suggested to me why not write her a card anyway, it got me thinking about how important and helpful it can be to mark these occasions by doing something practical.

I immediately went online and added a Mother’s Day card to our shop for next week and plan to write a lovely card full of love and gratitude to my mother, and already the thought of that makes me smile and feel happier.

So that turned my attention to Mum’s birthday tomorrow and I decided to bake her a cake. You might laugh and think that is odd, but I love baking and was planning to experiment with a rhubarb, orange and almond cake today anyway, and again the thought that whilst it is rising (hopefully) in the oven now, it is dedicated to my beautiful mum, lifts my spirits enormously.

I think we have all struggled with our mental health in some form or another over these strange and difficult months, and I know for me it has been a daily challenge, which has been more successful on some days than others. But acknowledging them, accepting the down days and identifying things that can help you is so important. I shall certainly be baking a cake for Mum on her birthday every year now!

Happy birthday Mum 💜

24 hours in Manchester

I think I have been to Manchester before some where in my dim distant past, but last weekend Peter and I spent 24 hours there, and thoroughly enjoyed it. We were blown away by the slick service, the sophistication and the fantastic energy of the city.

We went to Manchester to see John Mayer who was playing at Manchester Arena – I have to admit that you cant help thinking about the horrific attack that took place there two and a half years ago, but as I said to somebody, you cant live your life in fear, and the atmosphere inside was certainly fearless and electric.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Leaving aside the six hours it took for me to get to Manchester, when I eventually arrived, we still just about had enough time to get our supper which Peter had booked at Dishoom. What an incredible slick operation – I haven’t experienced service like that for a long time. Despite us being over half an hour late for the booking (we did call to let them know), we were whisked to a table, drinks orders taken and fairly swiftly after that our food order.

Dishoom is contemporary Indian, and I have to say the food was as slick as the service. Our okra fries arrived with our drinks – demolished within minutes. Followed by masala prawns, lamb sheekh kebab, house-style chicken tikka and gunpowder potatoes. Did I mention the service? Super friendly, efficient with plenty of managerial presence conducting proceedings without a hitch. We were in and out within an hour, but dearly would have liked to stay and linger with another glass of wine…

A ten minute walk took us to the Arena and swiftly through (very tight) security and into our seats. A fantastic concert – two and a half hours of all of his best tracks with a super-talented band and backing singers – and of course it doesnt hurt that John Mayer is fairly easy on the eye!

Peter had found and booked us a hotel called Native Manchester. If you havent stayed in a Native before, do yourself a favour and check them out. They are studio apartments in old refurbished buildings or super-cool modern developments or even mews houses, with a great contemporary design and lots of extra details you wouldn’t expect. The one in Manchester is an old converted warehouse in the Northern Quarter and has only been open a month.

In fact, I am pretty sure we were the first to stay in our room, as it didn’t look like any of the bath/body products had yet been opened. We booked the smallest room as we were only there for one night but it was still spacious and edgy with the original girders and brick work. But wonderful design details – a little table attached to the end of the sofa, a discreet drawer under the sink in the bathroom, gorgeous lotions and potions from Bramble, set up by somebody from Cowshed. Every studio apartment has a little kitchenette which had the basics you would need to cook something simple but everything was quality, even a Sabatier knife!

We got a late check out as it was all important rugby World Cup quarter finals in the morning, so whilst Peter languished in bed watching England thrash Australia, I nipped down to the oh-so-cool lobby and fetched us some cinnamon rolls and flat whites – it all felt very New York.

Rugby over and we had a lovely wander through Manchester. Those of you who know me, know that no outing is complete without a stop for coffee, and of course this was no different and top of our list. We found a Scandinavian artisan coffee house called Takk – they actually have three outlets in Manchester, and like our whole experience of Manchester, it was slick, sophisticated and plenty of substance.

Manchester – we will be back, and cant wait!

Nothing like a road trip….

Escaping for a few days R&R has given me time to reflect on the past few weeks. Goodness, you can’t underestimate the power of a little bit of downtime, always so difficult to allow, but the effects are huge.

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks, and whilst there is still so much to do – probate forms to fill in, estate agents to appoint, the house to clear out, when Peter announced last week that he needed to go away for a few days for some business research, I jumped at the chance to go too. Always up for a road trip, but right now, more importantly, I realised that I needed a change of scene, and a chance to unwind, even if only for a couple of days.

We stayed the first two nights at the Cow at Dalbury Lees, in Derbyshire, which I booked following an article in the Times on Saturday morning, very fortuitously for us, about the best summer pubs in Britain. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, but a real gem. It is newly refurbished, and uses lots of reclaimed wood and recycled items, such as old polished milk churns for bar stools. Our only negative was that we were put in a room right above the bar, so our first night was fairly noisy, but when we mentioned it the next morning, we were moved to a delightful room at the back of the pub.

As regular readers of my blog will know, coffee is always at the forefront of my mind, and what a pleasant surprise, when a fabulous flat white was served up at breakfast yesterday. I don’t think pubs are usually renowned for their coffee, but the barman at the Cow certainly knew how to make a good one. In fact, everything they served was on point. The chef clearly knows a thing or two. Produce was fresh and everything cooked really well – simple and of the moment.

In fact we have been blown away by the wonderful quality of produce and service everywhere on our trip so far. How times a-change. Lunch yesterday was at Bear in Derby, again lovely contemporary concept – lightly battered cod bites and pulled pork in soft tacos with slaw and avocado, and good flat whites.

Now sitting here in the wonderfully named ‘Medicine Kitchen and Bakery’, this cafe reminds me of some of the fabulous places in Sydney, large airy open spaces with lots of big wooden tables, for lingering over. And whilst I may presently get the probate forms out, it is still wonderful to be in a different environment. Somehow it just makes me feel lighter, less burdened, less sad.

But I am keeping my promise to Mum, wherever I go, she comes with me. I look out of a window, and for a split second, imagine that phone call, where I describe where I am, what I am doing, what I am about to eat or drink. And then I remember, all too quickly, that of course, I can’t do that. But this morning, when those thoughts popped into my head, I smiled, because I realised I was keeping my promise. Of course I will never forget you. I will think of you every day. Forever in my heart, Mum 💜

 

Winter warmers for a cold and snowy week

Last week was certainly a week for winter warmers, if ever there was one, and I, for one, loved every moment.

Whilst our temperatures here in the South of England plummeted to a freezing -6C for several days, the snow fell and our already beautiful countryside looked even more magical. This was indeed an unexpected pleasure, as having had magnificent snowfalls in Istanbul over the past four years, it is not such a regular occurrence in Hampshire.

But back to the winter warmers – this sort of weather definitely calls for warm and hearty fare, usually meaty as far as we are concerned, and gave us all the inspiration we needed for some delicious suppers all week.

Sunday: was a traditional roast rib of beef, as Waitrose had one last rib going cheap (always an eye on a bargain), which we decided to roast using the untraditional reverse sear method, taking inspiration from Jess Pryles and her Hard Core Carnivore book. That means, instead of the usual sear in a pan to brown all over, and then whack in the oven for a short time, you cook it in the oven at a low temperature first, and when it has reached the right colour of pink for your taste, achieved by using a meat thermometer, you rest the meat for a while before searing in a hot pan, which gives it a gorgeous colour as well as wonderful caramelisation. The result was a beautiful even pink throughout with no grey bits around the edges where the meat has cooked a little more. We had this with roast potatoes and roast purple sprouts doused in walnut oil. A triumph, as Thomas would have said.

Monday: Cold rib of beef, of course! With sweet potatoes and horseradish creme fraiche.

Tuesday: A warming and divine Bengali chicken curry from Peter’s new cook book, Indian Kitchen by Maunika Gowardhan. I was full of cold and requested a warming curry from Peter, and he certainly delivered!

Wednesday: was the remains of the rib of beef made into a very warming and hearty ragu, which we had with fresh tagliatelle and a winter salad of red cabbage, little gem, goat cheese,broccoli and walnuts.

Thursday: we managed to nip out to Waitrose for a quick stock up before we became completely snowed in, and bought some beautiful fresh Cornish hake – might not sound hearty, but with the addition of chunks of chorizo, and crunchy cubes of potato, it certainly worked for us!

Friday: after several days of being confined to our cottage, with heating and fire blazing, we decided to break out and head to the local pub with some lovely friends and neighbours, and had a gorgeous homemade steak and ale pie in a rich gravy with light crispy pastry.

Saturday was homemade pizza – well, the kids were home from school, what more can I say? Topped with yet more chorizo, and local Laverstoke Farm buffalo mozzarella. Perhaps our least hearty meal of the week.

 

Sunday – we rounded the week off with a magnificent venison chilli – local venison cooked with several different types chilli, using a fantastic recipe again from Hard Core Carnivore. This was superb – rich, unctuous, with lots of flavour from the sweet chilli, but never overpowering. We ate this spooned in soft tacos with dollops of creme fraiche. This probably wins the vote of most hearty dish of the week.

Usually we try not to drink alcohol during the week, but sometimes you have to throw reason to the wind, and these suppers cried out for full-bodied rich red wines, from a Barolo, to Rioja, to a Southern Italian Primitivo. I have loved our winter week full of snow and hearty food, but I think my waist line will appreciate the spring weather when it arrives!

My January health kick

 

So the festivities are over, the tinsel is packed away for another year, the kids are back at school, and I, like millions of others out there, stood on the scales last Monday morning and got the fright of my life. Initially I was too shocked to move off the scales, but this was swiftly followed by disbelief as I got on and off the scales checking that it was true.

When I have been over-eating, or rather eating too many of the wrong things over a period of time, then I definitely find that part of the weight gain is due to bloating and fluid retention, as my system is inflamed from the amount of food thrown at it – in my case, far too many profiteroles, slices of Yule log, cheese, crisps, croissants, etc, so I figure if I can reduce the inflammation, then I can shed the first kilos quite easily.

But it was more than that, I realised I had had enough of feeling bloated, sluggish and even unwell, and with all the newspapers and online media full of every health tip under the sun and every different diet to try, I realised it was time for me to start being a bit kinder to my body.

 

For most of us, our biggest enemies are probably what I call the bad carbs – so the usual culprits that include anything with sugar, plus crisps, croissants, which are my personal downfall, and i know that if I just cut those out, then I will lose those extra kilos fairly quickly.

However, as it was not just about losing weight, I decided to kick start the healthy eating plan by also giving up dairy, fructose and red meat, so as to better give my system a bit of a breather.

My biggest discovery, and the one element of fun in this whole process, has been the food diary app, MyNetDiary. I absolutely LOVE it – it definitely appeals to my OCD tendencies. I cant help laughing when I say, or type, that, because it is something that Peter has been using for several years now, and boy, have I given him a hard time about it – weighing every nut that he consumes!

So now, it is my turn. I am having to eat my words (and sadly not much else), as I pedantically weigh every oat flake, houmous lick and oil dribble. But it is fun – i know, maybe not everybody’s idea of fun – I adore scanning all of the bar codes and adding all of the data (again, sad), and it sort of gives it all a focus. The scary bit is that it actually makes you realise how many calories you consume and what and where they are hidden. That handful of nuts I am used to chucking in my mouth, whenever the urge takes me, is practically 150 calories right there and then.

And the more activity I can add, the more calories it gives me to eat, so guess what, it definitely encourages me to fit an extra walk in where I can.

So far so good – day ten and hopefully it goes without saying that I feel much better already – slowly getting rid of the bad stuff from my body, as well as shedding two kilos of unwanted extra baggage.

Sunday morning treat – sugar free pancakes with low-fructose fruit and maple syrup