Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Creamy, Cheesy Mexicana and Chorizo Pasta


I cook in a few different ways. Sometimes I'll challenge myself to make something new, following the recipe to the letter and buying loads of extra things that I'll never use again. Other times, I'll find a recipe and mess with it until the final result bears no resemblance to the original (but if it makes it on here, it means it totally paid off). And sometimes, I'll pretty much just throw the contents of the fridge into a pan and see what happens.

This recipe, my friends, is the latter. It successfully used up a bunch of stuff that would have gone off otherwise, took hardly any time to cook, and tasted pretty damn good to boot. The thing with experiments is that if the individual components are all nice, then chances are they work together. And if not... well. We just don't talk about those ones.

Creamy, Cheesy Mexicana and Chorizo Pasta
65g cured chorizo sausage
100g Mexicana cheese
90g light Philadelphia (about half a pot)
200g pasta
90ml semi-skimmed milk
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 red pepper
1 bag spinach
1 red onion
6 mushrooms
6 spring onions, chopped
1 red chilli, deseeded
Fresh coriander, to serve.

4 servings / 10 WW points

1. Cook your pasta according to the package instructions.
2. While the pasta is cooking, prep all your ingredients - chop your vegetables (except the spinach), cut up the chorizo and grate the cheese.
3. Get out a large frying pan or wok and throw in your chorizo, garlic and all your vegetables, except the spring onion, spinach and chilli. The chorizo should release enough oil that you don't need to add any more - just keep an eye on it and stir it every so often so that it doesn't stick or burn.
4. When your onion and mushrooms have softened (about 5-10 minutes), add the Philadelphia and milk to the pan, stirring constantly until they combine and make a sauce. If it's too thick, add a splash more milk.
5. Throw in your cheese and stir until it melts into the sauce.
6. Add your spinach and leave for a couple of minutes until it wilts (I usually pop the lid on to speed it up). Stir into the sauce, then add the spring onion and chilli.
7. Finally, drain your pasta and add to the sauce, stirring until pasta and sauce are all mingled and combined, then dish up.
8. Serve with a big old salad and a hearty sprinkling of fresh coriander.


The Mexicana cheese (this stuff) is what makes this recipe. We had some kicking around the fridge from making one of our many Mexican themed dinners, and I decided to see what would happen if I teamed it with chorizo. And good things happened. All good things. I was actually surprised by how good it was - usually I end up adding a lot of extra seasoning, but it really didn't need it. It made me realise just how many flavours are wound into that cheese - and a bit of a kick, too.

Of course this recipe would work with a normal cheese, but it would be a little bland. Although I'm sure if you threw in a few spoonfuls of fajita seasoning, you could solve that.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Wishlist: summer jackets for the office

For a really long time now, my self-inflicted work uniform has been black tights, heels or ballet pumps, a cute dress and a cardi over the top. It's classic, it's easy and it works. But lately I find myself falling out of love with cardigans. They often don't feel very smart, and I think we all know they're not trendy. Practical, yes - but a bit rubbish, too.

I think it's working in a more trendy office, as there are very few cardis around. Over winter, everyone wore jumpers and jeans, and now it's a bit warmer, the jumpers have been swapped for cute jackets and kimonos. It's making me desperate to update my terribly holey cardigan collection. All of these, please...


ASOS: 
one | two | three | four | five | six


DOROTHY PERKINS: 


NEW LOOK: 
one | two | three | four | five | six


H&M: 
one | two | three

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The ultimate Glastonbury packing list (from someone who's been going for a decade)


By now, I'm a pretty seasoned Glastonbury goer. I've been going since 2005, so that's a full decade (although this is only my ninth year, due to a couple of fallow years). I know my stuff. I've posted tips and whatnot here in the past, but what I've never shared is my packing list. I am EXTREMELY cool, so I actually have a spreadsheet. Scoff if you will, but having it saved digitally means I can always find it year after year, and am constantly editing and honing it every time I go. It's incredibly handy, and means that I don't forget anything. I don't think I can declare that from any other holiday I've been on!

Whether it's your first Glasto this year or you're heading to another festival, this will hopefully give you some packing inspiration. If you've not been to Glastonbury, it's unlike some other festivals in that the campsites and stages aren't in separate areas - once you're in, you're in. That means you're surrounded by 24 hour food stalls, most of which are incredible, so I never bother with a stove or proper food - just a few cereal bars and snacks.

Always prepare for all weathers - even if the Met Office is saying blazing sunshine all week, pop those wellies in the car, just in case. I've been caught out by leaving them at home before. And don't underestimate how cold it gets at night. It's bloody freezing. You'll want to layer like you've never layered before.


Festival Essentials:

  • Sleeping bag
  • Tent
  • Lilo (much lighter but just as effective as an airbed)
  • Umbrella (can also double as a parasol if it's very hot)
  • Inflatable pillow
  • Antibacterial gel
  • Rucksack (I take 2 for my belongings, and then a small leather one for day-to-day - here's a What's In My Bag post about that!)
  • Torch
  • Sunglasses (I usually bring 2 cheap pairs)
  • Large sandwich bags (always more useful than I expect, especially for keeping loo roll dry on a wet day, or popping on your feet inside your wellies if they get damp inside)
  • Bin bags (not just great for rubbish, keep one folded up in your day-to-day bag for sitting on)
  • Loo roll (a pack of 6 is usually enough for me - trust me, you'll be glad of it)
  • Baby wipes (this is your shower... sorry)
  • Cash (the cashpoints have long queues)
  • Pay as you go phone (batteries last longer and it doesn't matter if you drop it in mud)
  • Camera (prob best not to take one you care about)
  • Solar lights (so you can see what you're doing in your tent of an evening)
  • Picnic mat (Poundland sell mini ones, perfect to sit on)
  • Collapsible water bottle


Cosmetics:

  • Dry shampoo (life saver)
  • Tissues
  • Hair grips
  • Hairbrush
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Mirror (try and get a reasonably large one for sorting your face out in the morning)
  • Suncream (30SPF for the body, and oil-free 50SPF for the face)
  • Makeup (BB cream, concealer, eyeliner, lipstick)
  • Earplugs (tents are thin, campers are loud)
  • Razor (or go for a wax beforehand)
  • Hayfever tablets & any other medication
  • Ibroprufen


Clothing:

  • Wellies (even if no rain is predicted, BRING WELLIES)
  • Kagoul (see wellies comment, above)
  • Tights x10
  • Leggings x5 (great for layering over tights at night)
  • Socks x10
  • Long socks x6
  • Thermal socks x5 (all the socks seem excessive, but layering is your best friend when night falls)
  • Underwear
  • Dresses x5 (one per day, but you probably will rewear. I don't recommend jeans!)
  • Thin cardigan
  • Thick hoodie
  • Pyjamas (I wear fleece tracksuit bottoms and a long sleeved tshirt, plus about three pairs of socks and a hoodie)
  • Scarf
  • Gloves
  • Trainers
  • Flipflops (wishful thinking)
  • Straw hat (trust me, sunstroke at a festival is not fun)
  • Knitted hat (yes, in June. Gets bloody freezing at night)
  • Cycling shorts (for wearing under dresses if you go bare-legged)


Food & beverages*

  • Water (I bring a multipack of cheap water from a supermarket to drink in the car, then keep 1 or 2 full for the walk and make sure the rest are empty. Good for decanting alcohol into, or just filling up with water on a daily basis. There are lots of water points there.)
  • Cider x8
  • Cans of spirits & mixers x10
  • Cartons of wine x6
  • 500ml spiced rum (decanted into a plastic bottle)
  • Ginger beer (for mixing with the rum)
  • Tent snacks (I take Pringles, cookies, Babybel, cereal bars - for meals, you'll want to go to one of the amazing food stalls)

*Obviously the amount of alcohol you bring is totally up to you, but the amounts listed above work for me. Don't judge my drinking! It's a festival!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Gourmet catering at home with La Belle Assiette


On one of the last hen dos I went on (I go on a lot of hen dos), the girls organised a caterer to come in and cook us dinner. It was a great idea. It cost no more per head than all going out for a meal, but meant that we didn't have to leave the house AND that none of us had to miss out on the fun while slaving over a hot stove. They even tidied up for us! "That's a tip to store away for the future," I thought. And it's the perfect way to introduce La Belle Assiette, who offer that very service.

They invited me to a dinner recently to celebrate adding their 100th chef to their London service (and what a chef!). Their website is really easy to use - you just pop in your postcode, the number of guests you're planning to have and the date and time of your event and they let you know what's available. They're not just London-based, either - there are 551 chefs throughout the UK, so you're in with a good chance of finding someone to cater your event. Prices are around £35/45 per person, depending on who you choose and what they serve, and you get to tailor your menus to your tastes. They'll also cater for people with extra dietary requirements, but I'll get to that.

So here was our menu:


Our chef, Miguel Mesquita, told us afterwards that he deliberately keeps it simple because he wants people to be surprised as it adds more to the experience. I had even more of a surprise, because - being difficult - I'd fed back beforehand that I don't eat seafood or bananas, so I had no clue what I was going to get! I know, this is the second time recently I've had to demand a non-fish-dish, and it makes me feel very fussy. I'm actually not at all - I eat almost everything else, but fish is something that I couldn't even take a bite of to be polite. It can be quite limiting though, and prevents me trying a lot of tasting menus! I also often find people assume it means I'm vegetarian, but luckily Miguel didn't. He's Portuguese, and was keen to show us what really GOOD Portuguese food could be.


The Amuse Bouche was a little pot of pea and truffle mousse. It was incredible. Truffle can be quite a strong flavour, but it complemented the sweet pea taste perfectly. It was served with a plate of toast, which sounds a little dull, but this had been drizzled with olive oil and sea salt and was incredibly moreish. Must try that at home!


Our starter was Beef and Saba. The beef was served tartare style, so completely raw, topped with a parmesan crisp. Saba is a grape reduction, cooked for hours until liquid and incredibly sweet. By itself, it may have been too sweet, but combined with the beef and the parmesan, the flavours harmonised and zinged. Most pretentious thing I've ever written? Probably.


The main was Octopus and Chorizo. lt looked BEAUTIFUL. And this is from someone who loathes octopus - more than any other fish, actually, because the sight of it is so gross to me. Also that one scene in Oldboy. That'd put anyone off.


I had pork, served in the same way - on a bed of garlic and rosemary scented kale and punched potatoes, with a scattering of chorizo niblets. It was incredible, the best pork I've ever tasted (which led to many lewd replies to this tweet). Miguel served it slightly rare in the middle, which I've never had before. I didn't actually realise you could serve pork rare. I'm not sure I'd try it at home - he said it was quite a specific point just before it's done, so it was slightly pink in the middle. But it made it incredibly moist and so flavoursome. Pork can so often be really bland, but this was off the charts in terms of flavour.


Dessert was banana cheesecake for most people, but Miss 'I'm not fussy, honest' struck again so I got an orange puddding, served on a cheesecake-style crust (I couldn't get enough of those buttery bits of biscuit). It was yummy - so yummy that everyone around the table wanted to try some. Luckily, Miguel made extra, as I really wasn't keen on sharing!

The meal was served alongside some great wines which were selected by My Sommelier - champagne to start (Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc NV Cuvee), then white wine (Pernand-Vergelesses Blanc 2012 - Maison Champy) and finally red wine with the main (Cotes du Rhone "Terre de Fruits" 2013).

Miguel put on an amazing evening, and when we quizzed him afterwards found out that he trained at the Cordon Bleu and won a cooking show back in Portugal (Guerra dos Pratos) which spurred him to leave his job as an industrial engineer and follow his love of cooking. He obviously loves what he does and he's incredibly good at it. It was also really nice to meet some new bloggers - at the food events I've been to, it seems to be a different crowd every time, which is a lot of fun.

If you'd like to try out La Belle Assiette - and you should - you can get £30 off with the code LOVEFOOD15.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Afternoon tea bus tour with the BB Bakery & Rennie


This great nation was founded on combining two great things to make one awesome thing. Salt and vinegar! Cheese and biscuits! Peanut butter and chocolate! Cheese and pickle! Fish and chips! Cheese and another type of cheese! And now... afternoon tea and guided tours!

I feel my tone may sound sarcastic, but I swear it ain't so (I'm never anything less than sincere about cheese). I actually really enjoy a guided tour, especially one on wheels as it means I can rest my feet for a bit. You get pretty sights and learn a little while being lazy, what's not to love? Adding afternoon tea to the mix is right up my street.

I was invited to go on the BB Bakery Afternoon Tea Bus Tour by Rennie, who want to be associated with celebrating a yummy experiences rather than worrying about the side effects after - as long as you take Rennie, you'll be fine. I actually didn't need any Rennie after the afternoon tea though - everything we ate was fresh and utterly delicious, indigestion was the last thing on my mind.

The bus tour is a great idea, and the team behind it have orchestrated it really well. Both floors of the double decker bus are equipped with fixed tables and chairs so you can sit in perfect comfort whilst enjoying the sights out of the window. What's more, there's no risk of food and drink flying everywhere - the plates are attached to the tables, the tables have cup-holders, and your tea is even served in a travel mug. Even the cake stands have little lips attached to them so the cakes can't go anywhere. Genius.

What's more, the food is REALLY good. The tour is run by the BB Bakery - a real, established bakery in Covent Garden - so it's clear that quality is a priority. The sandwiches and quiches were fresh and unbelievably tasty, and the cakes - oh, the cakes. They were bloody good cakes, and despite the large quantity, it didn't take long for us to polish them all off. In fact, they rather showed the tour up, as they were far and away the highlight.


The tour itself was fine - we went past all the major London landmarks like Buckingham Palace, the Royal Albert Hall and Big Ben - but as there wasn't anyone commentating on the sights and the bus didn't stop, it was easy to miss them and focus on the food. And as the food was really good, I found myself missing a lot. I didn't mind too much - I'm in London a lot, and actually after the tour I walked from Waterloo to Paddington so went past most of those sights again on foot anyway (although I don't recommend that walk on a Saturday. So. Many. Tourists.) - but if you wanted an informative London guided tour then this may not be the one for you. They've focused on the food rather than the tour element, which I think is the right thing to do - I would have been disappointed by a really detailed tour if it came with rubbish cakes!

You can book into the BB Bakery Tour from £45 a person, which includes sandwiches, quiches, pastries, cupcakes, macarons and scones. It's a great experience for someone visiting London, a hen do or anyone who bloody loves cake.

Friday, 12 June 2015

In which I finally get over my issues with spectacles.


You know what trend I hate? Wearing glasses when you don't actually need them. I LOATHE it. Those hipsters with their lens-less spectacles and great hair don't know they're born. They haven't EARNED it. They've never had to endure knocking their specs off their bedside table in the middle of the night and waking up in a (literal) blind panic. Or having to incorporate major guess work as a teenager on whether or not the boys in the swimming pool with them were remotely cute. Or sacrificing their £5 a week pocket money at age 14 to show their parents they were serious about wanting contact lenses.

I resent it for all those reasons, but mostly I resent it because I have the worst vision of anyone else I know and have never found a pair of glasses that suit me in the 25 years I've needed them. IT ISN'T FAIR.

When you're as blind as me, glasses get expensive. My last pair were around £500, and have lasted me around 7 years. They're horrible. And I've been thinking lately that maybe I should try and get some better ones, some ones that are vaguely stylish and that I wouldn't refuse to go outside in. I basically just want to look like Jessica Day, which is a pretty impossible request, but the girl can rock a pair of glasses (even if she clearly doesn't need them).

When Glasses Direct got in touch, I thought this was my chance to finally find a pair of glasses that I LIKED. I took advantage of their home trial and ordered a few pairs to try on. Originally, I was hoping that going for a big, nerdy pair might be the way forward - you know, embracing the fact that glasses don't suit me by going for a novelty size. Turns out that they REALLY don't suit me. Here are my awkward photos (it's been nearly a year since my last outfit post - I'm very out of practise):


The home trial is a really good idea. It gives you a chance to order 4 pairs of frames at a time, for free, and keep them for 7 days to decide which you like best. You can do as many home trials as you like (I did two, but only photographed the first - basically I'd tried the entire London Retro range by the end!).

I chose the Jubilee frames in black, got my prescription from my optician and was slightly horrified at how much higher it was than my contact lens prescription (because glasses are further away from your eyes - makes sense, actually). But we're talking double figures here.


Sadly, it was then that I found out that Glasses Direct have a limit of -8 or +8 for their lenses and I was way over that. So they were unable to fulfil my prescription, although sent me the lovely frames for me to fill at a later date.

Most people will be within that limit though - I'm pretty rare. I'm yet to meet someone who can beat my prescription! I was also really surprised by the cost. If I'd bought the glasses myself at the maximum prescription, paying extra for thinning my lenses the maximum amount, it would have cost £136 (or £248 if I'd added a second pair). A far cry from the £500 I'd paid before - really good value.

And what's more, I genuinely love the frames. I actually feel like a normal human in them, rather than someone who people stare and point at when I wear them outside (I have issues about glasses, we've covered this). I even posted a selfie in them, which shows I'm serious.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Craft & Cleaver, St Albans: Craft Beer, BBQ (and burritos!)


As much as I enjoy living in St Albans, I do have the occasional moan about it. Recently we're getting better restaurants, but for the longest time it's been really quite samey. It's not a big town centre, but you can't walk two feet without tripping over an Italian or Indian restaurant - both of which I love, but you really don't need that many of them, especially when there's so many other cuisines that you could be trying!

What I decided we need - as I have declared myself the spokesperson for the hungry people of St Albans - is a good Mexican and a good BBQ place. The need for a good Mexican is something I've been complaining about for around ten years (pretty much ever since I tried good Mexican for the first time), and I even know where it should be (look, I ranted about it in September! And the Cursed Restaurant is still bloody empty!) but my prayers have been 2/3rds answered by Craft & Cleaver.

Craft & Cleaver is a new restaurant that has taken over Bar 62 on Catherine Street. As you might have guessed from the name, they specialise in Craft Beer and, er, things you might need a cleaver for. Like MEAT.


They invited Matt and I along to try out their new menu just before they opened on the 29th May and to say we were keen was an understatement. It's easy to take over-enthusiastic restaurant reviews with a pinch of salt, but when I sound this enthusiastic, I promise you it's genuine. Plus, when they're in my town, I feel even more invested than for a London restaurant because I know how likely it is that I'll be returning time and time again. And when they're THAT good, like Tabure, Relish and now Craft & Cleaver, I want them to do well. The menu at C&C is just everything I like. Amazing meat, amazing sides, amazing cocktails and an amazing brunch menu (which we were already plotting our trip back to try before we left). And there's even burritos on there! See? That's my Mexican rant dealt with, at least for a little bit (I'm gonna need more than burritos at some point, guys).


You wanna know what we ate, right? I get it. I need to relive the experience, too. To start we had smoked duck pancakes and burnt ends. The duck pancakes were good - they came fully made up, surrounded by a drizzle of honey and a scattering of parsley (as did most dishes) - but I must confess they paled in significance to the burnt ends. They were just SO full of flavour, and the blue cheese mixed through really worked. I had to physically stop myself from licking the bowl! By far the best thing I ate all night - and everything was pretty epic.


For our mains we shared the ribs and brisket plate and the Mother Clucker burger. The burger was really unusual - buttermilk fried chicken in between two waffles. The waffles had herbs mixed into them so were full of flavour, and I think the buttermilk crust on the chicken was herbed, too. Then it was topped with bacon, cheddar, spring onion, rocket, maple syrup and mustard sauce. It was really tasty, but I felt it would have been better with the addition of a thicker, creamier sauce. And maybe more cheese, but there's not enough cheese in the world for me. I loved the waffles though, way more than I thought I would - they were savoury (in case you're confused) and super fresh, but crucially they had great structural integrity. This wasn't a burger that fell apart on the first bite, which always drives me crazy.

The ribs and brisket plate was the main event, and it didn't disappoint. As standard you're given a big sharp knife to cut your meat with, but it was so tender that it wasn't needed. The ribs were covered in brown sugar and were unbelievably moist and the brisket was smokey and full of flavour. I preferred the ribs, but that's just personal preference - this was proper brisket, done in a proper smoker, and they know what they're doing.


For our sides we had chilli-butter roasted sweetcorn, which we both devoured (SO buttery), 50/50 fries (you know when you don't want to choose between sweet potato fries and regular fries? You don't have to! They give you a mix of both AS DEFAULT and you don't have to pay that ridiculous sweet potato fry tax of an extra £2 or whatever. So good!) and BBQ pit beans, which they make actually in their smoker, so all the juices from the meat drip down into the beans and little niblets of meat too. They were amazing. AMAZING. As brisket is traditionally served sauceless, the beans were the perfect accompaniment. There are also three homemade sauces on the table too to try, which all went really well with the meat. There's a beer bbq sauce, a sweet and sour bbq sauce and a tangy hot sauce. I love dips and sauces, so I was in my element.


To drink, I had a Dark 'n' Stormy (YUM) and a glass of Penotage red wine, and Matt sampled the Einstock Pale Ale and Weird Beard on draught and gave them both a resounding thumbs up. We'd decided early on that we would get milkshakes for pudding, but when it came to it we were both too full. So I'm going to need to go back to try their peanut butter milkshake... and maybe the key lime pie, too.

What really struck me about Craft & Cleaver was how fully formed it was. They'd really thought about the styling of the restaurant and the menu was so comprehensive. And they're doing barbeque PROPERLY - in the weeks leading up to launch, they were posting photos of their smoker (at one point containing a whole pig). They're not just popping a joint in a slow cooker and calling themselves a BBQ place because they serve pulled pork (which they actually don't serve). I loved my evening there and will be back. A lot.


I know I've said 'I'll be back' more times than the Terminator in this post so I felt like I should give you my reasoning. Here's what I still want to try:

  • Filthy Animal burrito - BBQ pit beans, dirty rice, fries, guacamole, iceberg, cajun sour cream, cheese and jalepenos with dirty fried chicken or smoked brisket
  • Hanger steak - Aged in Red Squirrel ink stout.
  • New Yorker burger - Topped with homemade pastrami, emmental, avocado and French's Mustard
  • Strawberry Waffles - Fresh strawberries, buttermilk waffles, maple syrup and marscapone
  • Halloumi & sweetcorn fritters - With crispy bacon, maple syrup and a poached egg

Can you tell that I'm excited about this restaurant? And only 15 minutes walk from my flat... this could be very bad for the diet.


PS - Since writing this post, I've actually already been back once for brunch, on Sunday. It. Was. Awesome. I am so here for the strawberry waffles. And on my recommendation, they're going to start selling BBQ pit beans on toast for brunch, so I will be needing to go back to get those in my face. I've also got at least two dinners here planned in June. New favourite restaurant alert.