Since before Easter, I’ve been experimenting with the Dukan regime. I’ve lost over 10 kilos / 2 stone, and although it has slowed down it’s still dropping off.

There are several books you can buy – it doesn’t matter which one, really, as they do tend to repeat whole chapters. Or websites – the official ones and ones set up by followers / hangers-on / added value sellers. I’d been unsure about whether to try this diet – as a rule I avoid commercial “diet” advice, there are health risks attached to it, friends who’d tried it said it worked brilliantly but could be very restrictive and boring. What convinced me was doing the true weight calculator on the official website. Instead of the constant “9 and a half stone” target I get from the Wii / bmi based systems, Dukan suggested a working target of about 12 and half stone, which actually felt achievable, and a weight I would be happy at.

It is also clear, as is Lighter Life although few people pay attention, that once the weight is off you need a long consolidation / re-education phase to embed new habits.

You start with an Attack, which can vary from a few days to over a week. Doing the calculator will tell you how long yours should be. Low-fat meat or poultry, skimmed or fat-free dairy, fish and seafood, eggs, tofu, aspartame, odd bits of flavouring (garlic, vinegar, mustard, herbs, spices). That’s it. No fruit, veg, nuts, beans, grains, sugar, fat, salt. Plus a spoonful of oat-bran, and at least 1.5 litres of water (which if you’re used to healthy eating advice, is not actually a lot). You can count tea, coffee and diet soda in the water – anything to keep your kidneys as active as possible. Eat as much as you want, at least 3 meals a day. 20 minutes walking.

At first it sounds horrendous, but to a girl brought up in the calorie-fixated 70s, it’s really liberating. Grilled steak flopping off the sides of the plate? check. A tub of sandwich filling without the tiresome bread or salad? check. Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast? check. Starbucks skinny latte with extra shots and sugar-free vanilla syrup? YAY.

I got into the habit of mixing my oatbran with a giant pot of fat-free greek yoghourt and some sweetener. Sometimes cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa powder, mint. Leave it to soften for about half an hour (or as long as you can keep the cat out of it), and it’s a really filling evening pudding. Or using oat bran and egg to coat chicken or fish to bake.

After your initial Attack, you move to the Cruise phase, where I am supposed to spend about 10 months, and during which you are supposed to lose weight slowly but steadily until you hit target. This alternates days from the Attack model with days where you can add foods from a short list of veg. It’s a very stupid and French-centric list.

For me, that’s been part of the fun. Isolating what is French prejudice and habit, and deciding whether to ignore it or not. Lamb is excluded from the protein list as being too fatty – but how much could you reduce by choosing older meat butchered differently? The text of the books waffles on about the Liver, that French health obsession. And it’s very misogynistic – almost any stage of a woman’s life or fertility cycle causes water retention, apparently. Vegetarians are grudgingly allowed to exist, but vegans can just naff off and die.

Rhubarb and tomatoes are on the approved list of veggies, but not strawberries which are relatively low in carbs. I can understand the logic behind not eating bananas, cherries, grapes etc which are very high in sugar, but allowing onions and red peppers which are around the 5/6% mark and not watery fruit which is about the same seems silly. Especially to someone like me who is far more likely to add a handful of allotment strawberries to a spinach salad than mourn a creamy sweet pastry.

There is also the wide variety of veggies / meat that he hasn’t thought of – goat, for example. Chillies, okra, tomatilloes, jicama, virtually anything “ethnic”. Luckily there are forums where people are discussing these – especially where there are halal / kosher issues with traditional French food. And websites publishing recipes adapted to local tastes and ingredients – I particularly like the ideas on DukanItOut but I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet.

So, verdict so far – successful, not boring, actually quite relaxing. Although there are some downsides – see the next post …

Pinterest – this looks fun

I’ve set up some boards on a system called Pinterest.  It’s like cutting pictures out of papers and magazines, and organising them on your fridge, but it’s based on images across the web. Highly addictive …

If you look at the bottom of the left sidebar of this page, you can see some of my boards and link direct to them. The content will change regularly as I add more STUFF. I’ve used this to replace direct links to suppliers, restaurants, events etc. which I had before.

If you like the look and feel of it, you can request an invite from the site itself  (it may put you on a short waiting list), or you can ask me direct. I’ll need your email address to send you one.

Bloody Courgettes

Yeah yeah yeah, I KNOW. But we only planted a few, although probably a few more than we thought we’d want in case of early death. And the little young ones were delicious, and we treated them with reverential care.

Now? Buggrit millenium hand and shrimp.

It didn’t help that J went away for a couple of weeks, and I Was Not As Assiduous in Allotmenting As I Might Have Been. My Bad. So now we have marrow-sized courgettes, and new ones coming all the time. We’ve had them every day in some form or another, and I’m fishing now for ever more exotic ideas.

Lifesavers have been:

Riverford Organics (who were our veggie box people until we got the allotment, and deserve splendiferous praise) maintain a recipe section on their website which is wonderful for me – it features new recipes for seasonal produce, a “what to do with the last … in the box” feature, and general hints and tips on dealing with fruit and veg. Currently on the stove is their Mexican One-Pot Courgettes, ready to be re-heated tomorrow with some pulled pork and cheese quesadillas. And there’s enough for another go-round later, as part of a Mexican feast along with some pork crackling and guacamole. I’m also thinking of offloading some of their bbq recipes at a birthday party this weekend.

The Penguin Book of Jam, Pickles and Chutneys by David and Rose Mabey. I’ve just nearly had a heart attack looking at where you could get a copy of this online, and you’re looking at a minimum of £40, even on Ebay. I feel I should point out that other books by the same authors are available. Jeez. I had a copy years and years ago, it vanished somewhere, and I found a very battered one for £1.99 in Oxfam last summer. It’s a slim little paperback, but it’s packed with shedloads of information, and excellent recipes. I’ve just potted up their bramble jelly, and used the pulp for a bramble cheese to go with the Wensleydale at Christmas. For courgettes, I’ve started this very evening a thing called “marrow mangoes”. You peel a giant courgette, cut in half lengthways and deseed it. Then you stuff the insides with onions, ginger, spices etc, tie it back together and steep it in vinegar for a week or so. Take it out, cut it open, chop the marrow and bottle it with a hot syrup made with the steeping vinegar. Won’t be able to report on success with this one until Christmas when it will be just ready. I’m also tempted by their marrow and pineapple jam, which looks easy and cheap for something quite unusual.

As usual the Dr Gourmet website has a twist, this time in the form of Zucchini Pizza Crust, which I am saving for the final stretch. Literally a giant disk of grated courgette held together with the minimum of egg and flour, baked until set and crisp and then baked again with pizza toppings.

I’ve started doing a thing I call a Roast Traybake – putting a variety of veg and some small joints of meat (chicken thighs, pork or lamb chops) in a shallow tray, drizzling with oil and appropriate seasonings, and bunging it in at Gas Mark 4 for an hour or so. “Appropriate seasonings” have include a paste of garlic, lemon juice and tarragon (with some chicken); cumin, coriander and oregano with some tomatoes and pork; mustard seeds, fenugreek and ginger with some lamb. Courgettes always feature – in lumps or slices – but we’ve also had peppers, carrots, big runner beans, tomatoes, and onion wedges. Beetroot and turnips will be joining in soon as we start harvesting them.

Hiding shredded or grated courgettes in things is also useful. I don’t bake, usually, but even I am contemplating muffins or cakes based on carrot or beetroot recipes, with added or substituted courgette. Having watched the bread episode of the British Bakeoff, though, I know to make sure it’s well dried before it goes in, or a soggy mess is the most likely result. I’ve been adding them to green salads, sandwiches / wraps, or yoghourt / hummus sort of things for dips and dressings.

John is back from The Allotment with a new batch, and assures me that while the green ones have gone into remission, the yellow ones are coming into their own. Aaaaaargh.

Happy World Book Day

There’s a meme going round about Book Day, and I’ve done it elsewhere for general reading books. It needed tweaking a bit for this, so here goes:

The cookbook I am reading for pleasure: in the downstairs loo are several books about cooking in the tropics, or books that I picked up in Australia last year. Currently I’m enjoying Masterchef The Cookbook (Vol 1).  It features popular recipes by contestants, and some of the dishes the chefs challenged them with.

The cookbook I love most: this is really really difficult. The first Madhur Jaffrey, Nigel Slater? Ones with narrative or without? Something that introduced me to a whole new world, or is the perfect reference for the classics? Aaargh. Then there are the self-published ones from groups of friends, that include recipes I’ve eaten, and the voices that I heard describing them. The Christmas ones that have helped me form my own traditions. In the end, having dweebled all day, I have chosen The Wholefood Book by George Seddon. I was given it for a birthday present at university over 30 years ago, and have constantly been amazed at how every time I revisit it, recipes with modern twists and trends spring out at me.  And the essays are full of advice on using fresh, local produce, reared organically and with respect.  I’m not saying I’d trust all the recipes – it’s not a Jane Grigson or even a Delia – but most are interesting and simple. Deffo one that comes down off the shelf over and over.

The oldest cookbook I have: mmmm, is that oldest in terms of content, or the earliest one that came into my possession? Oldest content is in the Roman Cookery of Apicius, trans/ed by John Edwards. First that I actually bought with my own money may well be Cuisine et Gastronomie de Bretagne, by Louis le Cunff, which I got on a teenage holiday in Brittany. Not sure I’ve ever used either of them to cook from.

The newest cookbook: Again, most modern or the latest that I’ve acquired? Most modern is a tie between Ministry of Food – Thrifty Wartime Ways to Feed Your Family Today by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, which accompanied the Ministry of Food exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, and Our Family Table by Julie Goodwin. Julie was an Oz Masterchef winner, and I got a signed copy of her book in Melbourne last year. The latest one is also the winner of the next category:

The nearest cookbook: Apricots on the Nile, a Memoir with Recipes, by Colette Rossant. As yet unread. It wasn’t a deliberate purchase, Dad is having a big clearout and I got it in with a load of other books. It’s the nearest because it’s waiting to be catalogued.

Gordon Effing Ramsay

There’s a downside to the Use It or Lose It philosophy.

I’m watching Channel 4’s Ramsay’s Best Restaurant, which has got to the semi-finals stage. Two places I really like, and recommend regularly, and get to when I can, have made it through.

One is The Milestone, Sheffield’s up-and-coming Michelin prospect. The other is Prashad’s, the Gujerati vegetarian restaurant/deli in Bradford. Although I’m proud and pleased for both of them, there have already been some unpleasant changes.

I’ve seen the results of Gordon’s handiwork around here before, when he rebranded the Runaway Girl into Silversmiths. I worked on that street,  and he didn’t tell you anywhere near the real story.

It’s a dead end, behind a student pub, and the car park next to it backs onto the Student’s Union and a Spearmint Rhino. Not exactly where you expect to find fine dining. The main thing he did to the menu was to take away the tapas and bring in that gourmet extravaganza – Pie Nights. And I can still hear the screams of laughter when Sheffielders found out that they could get a pie supper for JUST £8.50.

He talked about chain restaurants in the city centre as being the competition, and not about any other independent restaurants. The area he compared it to was Leopold Square, which is a new development surrounding a boutique hotel – not being rude, but it’s the sort of place secretaries go for lunch, or you get pissed in at happy hour before moving on. It’s already on the bogoff and email vouchers skids.

The real competition was Cubanas, which serves tapas with a Caribbean twist, loud, noisy, full of salsa music, clicking heels, smart wooden floors and loads of yellow glossy paint. Bright and vibrant, and Runaway Girl had already managed to get their chef. Ramsay re-branded Silversmiths to go up against our existing award-winning restaurants run by respected professionals serving locally-sourced, organic food – the Walnut Club, Rafters, Thyme, Milestone, up to The Vicarage which has a Michelin star. However, if you are in the city centre at night to eat, chances are you are out on the razz, or grabbing a bite before or after the theatre, and all the places you’re interested in are right in the city centre, not down a side-street on the way to the station.

Everyone went for a bit because Gordon had been there, and it perked up again for a few weeks when the tv show was on. But it doesn’t open regularly at lunchtime, and local views seem to be that the menu is unoriginal and not high quality. Lots of groups of staff going out for Christmas lunch choose places like Cafe Rouge or Ha-Has over Silversmiths. Their own website doesn’t feature any press reviews later than 2008, that’s not good. If he did such a good job, how come Milestone is in this competition, and Silversmiths isn’t?

We went to Milestone a few times back in the early summer, when it had a fine dining restaurant upstairs and a bistro menu downstairs. Now, post-Ramsay, the top end of the menu has gone, and it has settled into being a two-storey gastropub. Although the menu is still good, the progress towards a Michelin star has been set way back. Ramsay was critical on the first-stage show about the coaching / mentoring that they do in the kitchen, as being distracting, and it would be a real shame if that were to get sideswiped too.

I love Prashad’s food, but I don’t always have the time to stop for a meal when I’m in Bradford. I rely on the deli half of the business – it’s one of the few places I know that does patra, for a start. Or, rather, it was. Last time I popped in, it was to discover the deli vanished, and a poster on the door explaining that due to the Ramsay factor they had closed it to enlarge the restaurant. And expressing a hope that they might be able to open a separate deli nearby in the future.

So although I’m looking forward to seeing how everyone does on the show next week, I really hope they don’t fall for his bullshit. You know your local markets, guys, don’t let him faze you. One of the reasons I love your food is that you both have really strong ethics and ideals, thoughts about what a business should represent to family and community. You already win local and regional awards on a regular basis, and we’re looking forward to how you choose to develop yourselves. But I’d like to be sure that came from your heart, and not Ramsay’s little prejudices.

Mmmmm, Masala Chai …

Mumbai Masala Chai

When we were young, Laura used to call this “rice pudding tea”. You only really found it in the cheaper Indian caffs, or you had to make it yourself. Boiling together water, sugar, milk, tea leaves and spices. Mostly cinnamon and cloves, maybe some powdered ginger for heat, and cardamom pods if you could afford them. Deliciously warming and sweet. I wasn’t a tea-drinker, really, yet I loved it.

Then we finished university, real coffee became easier to get and a bit more affordable, life got in the way. And what with one thing and another, chai became a nostalgic treat. One of the things was diabetes, so it became a bit risky to have in a restaurant with the sugar overload involved.

In the past couple of years, Chai has surfaced into popular cafe culture, although most of it is a cruel parody. Caterers can buy a syrup or powder, which they use in a variety of ways. Starbucks make their own, of course, and I think that might have been the first one I tasted. You can just stir the mix into hot water and add milk, or make it with steamed milk from the coffee machine. Chai Tea Latte has become a standard. One of the problems with it is that the mixes are sugar-based, so you can’t control the level of sweetness – unless, of course, you want to add more. The other easy option for the consumer is to buy spiced Chai tea and make it at home. Twinings do a Chai teabag, which is widely available. Recently I’ve started drinking a tea flavoured just with cardamom, from Ahmad Teas, which I get from my local Persian supermarket.

Once you refine your personal preferences down in terms of spices, some of the commercial ones are like being kicked in the head. The Starbucks one in particular has way too much black pepper in it – John says it reminds him of the coltsfoot cough sweets he used to have as a child.

On our recent trip to Mumbai, I had masala chai regularly. The one in the hotel (in the picture) came in smallish vacuum flasks, was fairly bland, and had the gritty crushed spices lurking in the bottom. You could get chai anywhere, on the street from guys wandering round with flasks, and in cafes. I was surprised by the street vendors and some of the cafes who served it in tiny little paper cups, like you get the mouthwash in at the dentist. Until I tried it and realised it was the chai version of a double shot espresso, with a wham that kept you going through the muggiest monsoon afternoon. Well worth 7 rupees. Most areas of India have their own preferred blends of masala for the chai, some with an aniseedy background from fennel, some more hot with fresh ginger, and it was the regional variations surfacing in the different kitchens. Our hotel chefs had a strong Malay background, and used cloves for the peppery constituent, and a softer hand with the cinnamon.

As we journeyed through airports on our way to Australia, I found a lot of international coffee bars doing the Starbucks thing, and offering a Chai Latte. Most were, well, tolerable, if oversweet. When we got to Port Douglas and went shopping for supplies for the apartment kitchen, I could only get Twinings Australian blend of Chai with Vanilla, which is fine for when you want a vanilla flavoured drink that tastes vaguely of tea, but not otherwise. Bleugh.

Then I realised the Australian shopping mantra: Do Not Buy Things In Supermarkets. We travelled from Port Douglas north onto the area around the Daintree River, where they grow lots of interesting things including sugarcane and tropical fruits and tea. A packet of Daintree Original Chai is coming home with me (I bought it from the Daintree Ice Cream Company shop but I also saw it in the Australian Product Shop at Cairns airport). The sample pot we had was rich but delicate and light, very fresh tasting. The spices are crushed rather than ground, with recognisable pieces of cinnamon and dried ginger. There is a star anise element, which replaces the fennel and gives an almost Chinese overlay.

In the hotel coffee shop in Melbourne this morning I came across Tea Drop Malabar Chai, which was even more fragrant, due to the inclusion of rose petals. That’s a Northern India / Kashmiri / Pakistani element, and I’ve not really come across it before. It was a bit too elegant for a morning wake-up call, but it would be a beautiful after-dinner or late summer afternoon drink. I was particularly pleased that they offered the option of having it as a plain pot of tea with cold milk on the side, or made up with hot milk as a latte. Most places it’s one or the other, and usually the latte. This blend was too delicate to stand up to that, the sweet tones would have predominated and it would have lost its balance.

Yesterday we did a tour of the Victoria Market, and there was a tea specialist shop in with the delis. I might go back tomorrow and see what I can find … and if anyone has suggestions of blends I should look out for in the next week, please let me know!

Dinner at the Press Club, Melbourne, August 2010

This is just a note of what we had, not a full review. I’m not claiming I’ve got everything, as I am re-creating this from memory – we had the Experience rather than take notes as we went along. We sat at the Chef’s Table, which is a set of bar stools alongside the dessert prep area, with a view through to the front kitchen and the pass. We went for the tasting menu with the wine selection to go with it. DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU INTEND TO EAT THIS – THE SURPRISE PRESENTATION OF EACH COURSE IS PART OF THE FUN.

As follows:

Ellada “Snacks” – that’s a bowl of olives in oil, with black coarse salt and bread for dipping, followed by a skewer lollipop of seafood (mussel, anchovies, maybe a bit of squid?) with a pistachio praline crumb, and a little glass pot with a savoury custard layer, topped with set consomme, crisp fried sweetbreads, and a herb foam.
Cyclades “Kapnos” – matched with Weingut Max Ferd Richter ‘Estate’ Riesling 2008, Mosel Saar Ruwer, Germany – a salad plate with fennel puree, ouzo pickled fresh onion and orange glaze finished with smoked octopus, served from a glass dome over a tiny grill with charred fennel underneath, still smoking.
Ionian “Garides” – matched with R. Lopez de Heredia ‘Viňa Gravonia’ Crianza Viura 1999, La Rioja, Spain – a white Rioja with sherry-like qualities, with a dish of Iberian ham topped with a hot prawn, and a cube of ham consomme, with just a dab of pureed raisin with rum.
Thessalia “Lagos” – matched with Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 1999, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, France – hot boned rolled and pressed chicken slices, topped with a carrot and pumpkin seed salad and a sauce of avgolemono soup.
Peloponesso “Psari” – matched with Eastern Peake Pinot Noir 2000, Ballarat, Vic – a crisp-skinned portion of barramundi, with a black rice underneath, a white onion puree, and a dressing of rice foam and chicken jus.
(We got a little “extra” course here, for putting up with being sat on top of the chefs, a Greek rice-shaped pasta in a rich rich chicken jus topped with shavings of fresh Tasmanian truffles and a French Pinot Noir, which was one of the seasonal specials.)
Makedonia “Arni” – matched with Nittnaus ‘Kalk und Schiefer’ Blaufrankish 2007, Burgenland, Austria – the lamb. A sous-vide chunk of melting meat, with a little roast loin on the side. mashed potato, shredded beetroot, a smear of skordalia and a black fermented garlic clove.
Crete “Refreshing” – digestive – a lime vanilla jelly disc, topped with a yoghourt sorbet, a spoonful of crushed frozen citrus segments, and a dash of sherbet powder.
Cyprus “Aphrodite” – matched with Samos ‘Vin Doux’ 2007 Moschato ASPRO, Samos, Hellenic Republic – the signature dessert, which we had watched being made all night – a composed platter of a white chocolate mousse with a raspberry filling, raspberry terrine, rosewater jelly, various bits of fruits, chocolate “soil” – like a crushed dark chocolate biscuit – topped with a sugared rose petal and finished with a spritz of rosewater in the air.
And coffee, much needed … we sat down at 7 and left at nearly 10:30. With the food and the wine, it cost nearly $500 for two people (around £300) which puts it up there with the Barrier Reef trip as a once-in-a-lifetime thing to do.