I can resist most things in life except homemade cake and a good cocktail (and cocktails that taste like cake). If I’m honest, this summer has been spent enjoying far too many of the latter thanks to my befriending of a mixologist who’s pretty much made it onto my speed dial list (this is big news since I don’t call people ever). Don’t judge, if someone offered to make you espresso martinis and gin drinks that taste like palma violets on demand, your cocktail consumption would overtake your water intake too.

It was said friend I called upon when Waitrose Cellar got in touch and asked if I’d like to work on generating a cocktail with a twist, something to sip on summer evenings. I’ve been drinking heaps of gin since national gin day, so I chose a blended Scotch whiskey to work with and started playing around with some ideas. Actually, that’s a lie, what I really did was sample the whisky when it arrived and buy a bunch of things I thought might complement its rich vanilla and chocolate tones and then pass the whole kaboosh to the professional with the instruction that I wanted even more vanilla in it.

We actually tested the drinks out at the annual Berg barbecue held at my parents and since every surface  in the kitchen was covered with related stuff, I didn’t get to photograph the ingredients and equipment. I did get some nice-ish shots of the outcome though (thanks to a borrowed camera). In the end, we played it simple with a whisky sours with a touch of vanilla and ginger.  This proved the perfect beverage to enjoy on a balmy summer evening.

The naked sours ingredients

 

Vanilla and ginger whisky sours

50ml whiskey
25ml egg white
Juice of half a lemon
15ml syrup from stem ginger (with a little of the ginger too if you like, but mash it first)
one drop of bitters
One vanilla pod, seeded

Add all the the ingredients to your cocktail shaker with three quarters cubed ice and one quarter crushed ice and garnish with your vanilla pod, lemon and add a cherry if you like. Here’s what ours looked like, as it took a little while to find anywhere to photograph it, the egg white had lost its froth a bit but it still tasted divine. 

whisky sours with a twistI was genuinely impressed with the quality of the own brand whisky, which was pleasant enough with ice before it turned into the beautiful beverage above. I was also incredibly grateful not to have a hangover the next day, which means unfortunately, I might have to have another whisky sours night soon.

What’s your favourite cocktail?

If I was to narrow my food fascination down to one moment, an epiphany of sorts , it would be my first ever taste of paella on my first ever family holiday abroad.

I was six and in sunny Spain (Mallorca, to be exact) and we were eating a meal at a local restaurant. My dad had ordered a large paella for us to share. It hadn’t entered my head that it might be an adventurous choice for some kids,I just wanted to eat what Dad was having, obvs, because he was easily the coolest person I knew (and know).

When it arrived at the table, the golden colour of the saffron made it look far more exotic than the chicken risotto we always had on Tuesday tea times and the garlic and smoked paprika permeating the fresh prawns, squid and chicken meant I was soon battling Dad for the serving spoon. I’ve struggled to find squid cooked as well since, though my annual pilgrimage to Barcelona has established paella as one of my favourite foods.

So, when I was asked to enter a blogger’s competition held by Villa Plus to celebrate the launch of their local food guides for MenorcaKefaloniaCosta Blanca,Fuertaventura and the Costa Del Sol I was most definitely hoping to be assigned a Spanish destination. I was pleased as punch (or Sangria) when I was given Menorca as my food inspiration. I was given money for ingredients and tasked with creating an authentic family meal that could be cooked in self catering accommodation using local ingredients and factored in budget considerations. After looking at the winning entry in the previous round from Alice at Harley-Wood I knew I was going to have to think a little bit differently and so, I present you my pasta paella – the family friendly fideua!

 

fideua

As you may have guessed, fideua uses pasta in place of rice to make a speedier but full-flavoured paella dish. fideua is a type of pasta and it is available to buy online but as I was trying to keep costs down I opted to use supermarket value spaghetti. In total my meal cost £1.89 per person if served to four, though it could easily stretch to six as the photograph above is of a fairly small serving. I was lucky enough to have many of the ingredients like saffron and pimento in my store cupboard and was also able to use garlic from my Dad’s allotment, lemon sage from my own herb garden and in place of the usual broad beans used in this type of recipe, I used some courgettes, again from Dad’s allotment. I bought my prawns at the fishmonger’s (which meant being up bright and early because they close at 12noon) and my chicken thighs at the butchers next door. I’m lucky that these things are on my doorstep thanks to living in a small village on the coast. I was a tad disappointed that the fishmonger didn’t have any in shell prawns to decorate my dish with but the fishmonger did give me some empty crabs to boil in my stock. Asking nicely in local shops pays dividends!

I can occasionally get a bit carried away and over spice things, but I have to say not doing so in this case really worked out and I enjoyed getting a hint of the lemon sage through the slightly smokey spaghetti. I’ll be making a big pan of this on the barbecue next time I have friends over!

Here’s how it’s made

Ingredients

300-350g spaghetti – in place of fideua pasta, though you can buy this online

a pinch of saffron

6 tablespoons of passata

5 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon of rosemary and chilli olive oil (you can use normal, I only have home-flavoured in the cupboard and it works well)

6 tablespoons peas

Half a red pepper

1 onion

700 ml water

2 x celery sticks

1 star anise

around 8-10 lemon sage leaves (in place of basil, adds a nice hint of citrus)

sliced yellow and green courgettes (instead of the usual beans)

Cheat’s aioli

Pimento (to taste)

A few tablespoons of mayonnaise, one egg yolk, sprinkling of pimento

Method

I skipped a few steps I would usually take with paella because even in the most well-equipped of self catering apartments, you don’t want to be slaving away for hours in the kitchen. To accelerate the cooking of the chicken thighs, I cooked them for a few moments on my foreman grill first, though this could be just as easily done on the barbecue or in the pan. Later, instead of serving with homemade aioli, I cheated and dusted some mayo mixed with egg yolk and garlic salt and dusted with smoked paprika. Aioli is usually plentiful in Spanish countries without the need to laboriously pour a drizzle of oil into a pestle and mortar with garlic and it can be found in the chilled section of most corner shops.

My first step was to make a stock by frying the crab claws, onion, star anise, 2 garlic cloves and celery in a pan with a pinch of pimento, then added the star anise, water and passata. I fished out the claws, leaving any meat, blitzed with my hand blender and put through a sieve. This sounds laborious but only took ten minutes and you could opt to use ready made stock instead.

Next, I continued to brown off the chicken thighs in a pan with a little of the rosemary and chilli oil, added the remaining garlic cloves and broke the spaghetti into the pan. After stirring, I sprinkled with saffron and pimento and added about one third of the stock mix. From here on in, it was a case of keeping the pan at a moderate heat and adding things in the order they would cook – so prawns and pepper next and finishing with the sage leaves, courgettes and peas. If using beans you’d allow them to go a little mushy but I wanted my courgettes a little al dente, so added them on the top of the pan towards the end.

As with cooking paella, it’s important not to stir the pan too often. I stirred mine only when adding the liquid, which was soaked up in three batches, with the dish taking just 20 minutes to cook thanks to my pre-cooking of the chicken. I found the dish filling on its own but you could add some crusty bread and a salad and of course, if you have the option to use fresh mussels and other seafood, you should definitely take advantage – particularly if your children are open to a little food experimentation!

You can check out the other competition entrants from this round and previous rounds by exploring the  #VPeats hashtag on Twitter. 

What is your earliest food memory of trying something a little different? Have you gotten more adventurous as you got older or have you always been willing to try new foods?

You’d be forgiven for thinking I’ve not been doing a lot recently because blogging has taken a bit of a back seat since I moved into my new home. Alongside all the adventures associated with home ownership – like measuring curtains, buying light bulbs and new socket fronts and following visitors around when they visit so you can turn lights off after them in order to keep my electricity bill low and make them feel extra welcome – i’ve also been trying to eat a little more healthily in order to drop a few pounds.

All sounds rather sensible doesn’t it? I must be honest, there’s a semi-constant voice in my head that’s saying things like: “For the love of god woman, where’s the cake? When will we go dancing again? Where’s the meat in this sausage sandwich? What have you done with the booooze?!” So, to quieten the voice in my head I arranged for a few friends to come over for a tea party.

Because throwing the healthy eating plan out of the window altogether seemed a little bit too carpe diem, I searched the internet for some Slimming World friendly treats. As a new homeowner, I have of course thrown myself into Pinterest with all the enthusiasm of someone who spends an inordinate amount of time looking at lighting options despite not being able to afford new lightbulbs and should you want to follow me, you can find my Pinterest profile here (I’m also looking for people to follow, suggestions?)

Slimming World afternoon tea

Mostly slimming-friendly treats

As you can see, I went all out on the food front. The photo is a little blurry but you should be able to see some ham and mustard sandwiches, falafel rolls with homemade salsa, crustless quiches made in silicone moulds, a lovely tea pot of herbal tea and some mismatched but pretty vintage tea plates. And, the all important cake…

Slimming World brownies and not so Slimming World cake

Slimming World brownies and not so Slimming World cake

To settle my sweet tooth, I made a batch of brownies, the recipe for which can be found over at Pretty and Polished. These brownies are lovely and rich and squidgy despite being flour free, though I’m still trying to find a sweetener that doesn’t give them a bit of an aftertaste. I also discovered they freeze fairly well as I stashed some in the freezer. If you’re a Slimming World follwer and wondering about the syns – these will vary depending on how small you cut the brownies but these beauties were about 0.5 syns.

Also on the menu were some faux ferrero rocher, which are made with ryvita and nutella (yes, really) and are salivatingly good and fibrous at the same time (sensible win). You’ll find a number of recipes on the web for them, most of which include golden syrup in the recipe but I managed to reduce the syns in them even further by using agave syrup, which I found in Aldi, These were a real hit at the tea party and with the help of my Kenwood Mixer were ridiculously easy to make.

Finally, you’ll spot some ‘proper cakes’ in the photo, which are some Jammy Dodger cupcakes. These were donated by Ma Berg who was also baking for visitors and has taken to using some of my recipes recently, which is a huge compliment for me as she’s a total boss when it comes to baking!

To work up an appetite we went for a rather bracing walk along the beach and then came back and warmed up with some fresh teas (extra special ones I’d been sent by a foodie penpal, including a lovely, sweet Thai chai) and because I’d planned pretty well, I was able to have a bit of everything (minus the cupcakes). And so the little voice that tries to lead me astray grew quieter for a while. Now however, now it’s saying things like: “It’s about bloody time you made some cocktails. Mixing two lots of fruit squash is not a cocktail!”

Let’s be honest – January isn’t the best month for food – with the barrage of brands telling you that you look fat and frumpy post Christmas indulgence and the lack of funds after the festive splurge, January can be a bleak time for the tastebuds. Fear not, dear friends, because now is a great time to embark on a culinary adventure with a comforting name: CASSEROLE CLUB.

I’ve long been a fan of the food club as a social affair (if you are too, you should check out my article for the Guardian). I think I first read about the casserole concept in an India Knight book and banked it somewhere in my brain as ‘something interesting to try’ and then proceeded to forget about it for a good long while. The idea was plucked from the archives when waste food was once again headline news late last year, with supermarkets being criticised for waste resulting from BOGOFF offers and other related multi-buys. As a single female who lives alone (don’t pity me, I have my own kitchen and 15 cupboards all to myself) I do struggle to keep food interesting and affordable, I like to batch cookbut it doesn’t half get boring ploughing through the same meals over and over. So, I rounded up a group of fellow food appreciators at work and asked if they fancied joining me in a lunch club experiment.

The rules of casserole club

  • Each person takes turns to cook for the whole group
  • The maximum budget for each meal was £10
  • The meal didn’t need to be an actual casserole, though the ease and affordability of stews/casseroles mean that most we eat at least fell into the one pot category
  • Avoid food waste

Apart from seeming a little anti-social to some of our work colleagues because we formed our own lunch clique, casserole club was a massive success. I’m fussy about my lunches but I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so well at work and it was such a relief not to have to prepare something every evening for the next day. I was a little worried about the impact the week might have on my weight loss but I actually lost a pound and a half during the week, just by having my main meal at lunchtime and switching to homemade soups each evening. Here’s what we ate:

A winter stew with spicy sausage, barley and root veg

Monday – Spicy sausage and barley stew

Peter started off the week with a rich, tasty barley and spicy sausage stew, complete with juicy root veg and a touch of chilli.

I saved money by buying a large selection of chicken thighs and drumsticks and made my Slimming World friendly chicken and lentil one pot recipe, I had enough money left over to treat us all to fat free fromage frais, lime and coriander to serve on the side and blew £1 on an offer pineapple, which I dressed in lime juice, brown sugar and mint to create mojito pineapple without the rum. The remaining coriander ended up in a carrot and coriander soup (made with organic carrots that Sainsburys had reduced to 20p, winner!)

Wednesday’s wonder came courtesy of the lovely Bethanie Jane, who created a vegetable Thai curry and sticky rice that was deliciously sweet and indulgent without being stodgy. You can read the lovely Beth’s post about her experience of the week on her blog here. She’s also dairy free, so has lots of dairy free tips on her blog.

thai curryThursday took us back into meaty casserole territory, with Craig’s rich beef and butternut squash stew, which came with it’s own condiment in the form of a gremolata. I LOVE CONDIMENTS, I snuck extra teaspoons of the gremolata onto my bowl when the others weren’t looking, shhh!

butternut squash and beef casserole with gremolata

Butternut squash and beef casserole with gremolata

The week ended with a carbtastic offering from Hannah from at my-first-house –  a lasagne with an extra meaty sauce. My portion (bigger than my head) came without cheese to keep me dairy intake low.

lasagne without cheese

Friday – Lasagne

And so concludes a week of very tasty waste-free lunches, hopefully to be repeated soon! On a sidenote, when tweeting about our experiment I came across a charity casserole club in London that looks like a great way to put extra portions to good use.

Have you ever tried a lunch club? Is it something you’d think about giving a go? If you do, let me know how it goes!

I’m a late in life lentil lover. It wasn’t until I discovered lentil daal that I started to build meals around the fantastically cheap and gloriously versatile lentil and now I love them just as much in summer salads as lentil stews, though this recipe definitely falls into the winter warming category.

I’ve been trying to lose a few pounds recently – the long commute to and from work means I don’t have as much time for exercise and I’ve been starting to feel less than trim. So, when I was challenged to conjur up a meal suitable for this chicken recipes inspiration page, I knew I wanted to head down the low-fat and filling route. I took more than a little inspiration from one of my favourite fail-safes for the Good Food website here and created a daal-esque one pot with plenty of flavour and some subtle spice.

Lentil and chicken one pot ingredients

I tried to cram a lot of goodness into each bowl and found the sweet potato in particular worked well with the spices but there’s plenty of scope for mixing and matching this dish depending on what you have in the cupboards. Depending on the serving size, this serves between 4 and 8 and if you’re following Slimming World extra easy, it’s Syn Free!
ingredients for lentil and chicken one pot75g Yellow split peas (soaked overnight – I forgot, oops)
75g Green lentils
150g Red split lentils
8 chicken drumsticks/thighs (skins removed)
1 x Onion (chopped finely)
3 x Garlic cloves (chopped finely
2 x Green pepers (chopped finely)
1 x Large sweet potato
3 x Carrots
1 x tsp fennel seeds, black mustard seeds, cumin seeds
1 x tsp turmeric, fenugreek, bunch coriander
1 x 400g tin plum tomatoes
Vegetable/chicken stock (approx 700ml)

Method

Brown the chicken drumsticks/thighs in a flame proof casserole dish (I used my iron faux le creuset beauty) using a little fry light spray and set aside. Fry the spices and seeds in the chicken chicken, lentil and sweet potato one potjuices and add the onions and garlic. Add the carrot and sweet potato, cook for 5-10 minutes then add the lentils, the browned chicken and cover with stock. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and cover. I simmered for approximately 30 minutes, adding stock as and when required, before adding the green pepper and tinned tomatoes and finished with coriander. The chicken should be tender and falling off the bone. I served with a nice thick spoonful of fat-free fromage frais and a little fresh coriander on top and it tasted even better the next day and the day after!

 

 

*This post was produced in partnership with Schwartz