Sunday, 16 June 2013

The odd things too much cake can make you do: a trip to Bettys, York

First up - apologies. I have been a bad, bad blogger. You might be mistaken for thinking that I came down with some kind of fatal food poisoning since my trip to Handmade Burger Co in April. Rest assured, I'm very much alive and well - obviously this here blog is proof that I'm not a modern day Blogger Jesus.  Instead, I've been busy wedding organising, celebrating (a lot), contemplating moving house, trying to get a bit fitter, and generally being a bit, well, busy.

But fear ye not, I'm back. And today I'll be talking about something exceptionally important and close to my heart - CAKE. And afternoon tea. Oh my. This is what dreams are made of.

Since we came back from Croatia, I've been attempting to be good on the food front. You know the drill - no naughty-ness, lots of salad, more vegetables than Mr McGregor's garden, counting Weight Watchers points until they come out of my ears and absolutely no cake. Boring boring boring. Of course, however, I made an exception for this bad boy - made by my brilliant friend Sophie in honour of our engagement and containing two of my most favourite things in the entire world - chocolate and Diet Coke. How could I say no to a slice of that?

Anyway, you get the picture. Over the past two months, the lbs have gradually started to drop off but I have been dreaming of cake. So you can imagine my excitement when two of the Mr's lovely friends from Uni bought us a voucher for champagne afternoon tea at Bettys (which mysteriously doesn't have an apostrophe - but don't let that put you off).

Bettys is somewhat of a Yorkshire institution. When I first decided to move to God's Own County for university my mother dearest could hardly contain her excitement of a) having a child-free house and b) having an excuse for regular trips to Bettys. Founded in 1919, the company now has six tea rooms across Yorkshire and a successful mail order company. Although the queues for their tea rooms often stretch round the corner and prices aren't exactly akin to buying a Tesco's bakery danish pastry, the amazing service, beautiful decoration that's reminiscent of a bygone era and the promise of exceptional cake make both the wait and the threat of a slimmed down bank balance worthwhile.

Keen to avoid the queues, I  managed to book a table for afternoon tea at the Belmont Room at the York branch. Away from the hustle and bustle of the main room and shop, the Belmont Room is a bookings only space that's above the main restaurant area. With a separate side entrance, it feels slightly department store-ish (I think maybe something to do with the darkness of the room due to a love of thick blinds) and it isn't quite as opulent as the main tearoom. However, when being faced with waiting in the rain in among a street load of Japanese tourists eager to get their mitts on some cake, the sacrifice was well worth it.

After being seated by a very friendly maître d, there was some confusion about the validity of our gift voucher for the Belmont Room that I wasn't made aware of when I secured the booking - apparently prices in the Belmont Room are slightly higher than they are in the main cafe tea rooms. However, it was quickly rectified after the maître d agreed that it was an error in communication on Bettys side, leaving us to enjoy our glass of champagne. 

After a peruse of Bettys substantial tea menu (containing no less than 18 different types of tea), the bubbles from the champagne made me divert from my normal (boring) choice of breakfast tea and instead opt for China Rose Petal which promised to keep my "mind, body and spirit in natural harmony." Very third age, but delicious none the less.

And then came the afternoon tea. Three amazing tiers of completely diet-unfriendly bliss which began with a selection of the most beautiful sandwiches - chicken and tarragon mayonnaise, smoked salmon, ham and mustard and egg and cress. The bread was oh-so-moist and fresh and the flavours complemented each other in a way that only the God of Afternoon Teas could create. In fact they were so good, we asked for more (forgive me Weight Watchers for I have sinned). 

Next came the scones. Ohhhh the scones. You know that thing when you cut into a scone and it's got a delicious crust on the outside and then it's beautifully soft and squidgy on the inside? Yeah? Well that in abundance. With cream and jam. Four little pieces of heaven.

And finally it was the turn of the cake. There was delicious macaroon, melt-in-the-mouth lemon meringue, coffee and ameretto sponge, victoria sponge to die for and a little slice of chocolately goodness. Oh my. I'll let the picture do the talking.

With that we finished our tea and rolled back down the stairs into the hustle and bustle of York, having spent two hours in Cake Utopia. Thanks Sarah and Jay.

The tea (along with the sugar high and added champagne) must have done something to my mind, body and spirit as promised as we then decided to go take a very romantic trip to a Go Outdoors store. More than two hours and a lot more than a few pennies later, we walked out clutching a tent, two rucksacks, two waterproof jackets, walking shoes, top of the range self-inflating sleeping mats (who even knew they existed) and a whole load of other stuff having taken the snap decision to walk from Saltburn to Filey this summer (and camp along the way). Maybe I need to lay off the cake if this sort of thing is the result. Lesson learnt.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Handmade Burger Co proves that burgers don't have to be boring

On Sunday night we arrived back in Leeds after a whirlwind of a holiday with a new relationship status, sunburned skin and a massive rucksack full of washing. To be frank, food shopping was the last thing on my mind, so you can probably imagine my relief when I checked my emails and was reminded that Handmade Burger Co had invited us to review their Leeds Trinity restaurant. We needed little encouragement to avoid Morrison's and our bulging washing basket, so off we popped on Tuesday night to sample some of the Leeds' newest foodie fayre and combat our post-holiday blues.

Handmade Burger Co are one of a number of chain restaurants that have sprung up in Leeds' brand spanking new shopping centre - they're joined by the likes of Carluccio's, Cafe Rouge, Giraffe, Nando's, Wagamamas and TGI Friday's.  Founded in Birmingham in 2007 by a trio of brothers, there are now sixteen Handmade Burger Co restaurants scattered around the country. They make and hand press their burgers on-site in their restaurants daily. Unlike some of their neighbours in the Trinity Centre, Handmade Burger Co really seem to value extremely fresh food, variety and service - not just in their mission statement but in practice too (and I'm really not just saying that).

The Leeds Trinity restaurant is fresh and modern, with a large open kitchen running against one of the back walls. With an ordering system not dissimilar to Nando's (you're shown to a table, choose what you want and then order at the counter), it could be easy to feel like you're just a number and service levels could reflect that. However, the service that Ash and I received was exemplary - beating the "service" we've been subjected to by their competitors hands down (not that you go to Gourmet Burger Kitchen expecting Michellin starred service, of course!).

With over forty different burgers on offer - ranging from a classic cheese and bacon burger right through to Moroccan lamb, brie and cranberry chicken, and stuffed cheddar and chilli - making a decision as to what to break my post-holiday diet with was more than just a little bit difficult. After a bit of hmming and haaing, we decided that as Homemade Burger Co first got in contact when I was battling with meat-free March it was only right that we check out their vegetarian options. And my goodness - if you're a veggie you could do far worse than choosing to eat here. With a plethora of options to choose from, it really is a breath of vegetarian fresh air. Our lovely waitress explained that all the vegetarian options are cooked separately (in vegetable oil) from the hundreds of meat-based food on offer, so no worries there either!

After some debate we settled for a Sweet Potato and Bean Burger (£7.25) and an Onion Bhaji Burger (£6.85), along with a portion of cajun seasoned fresh cut chips (£3.25) and a house salad (£4.95) to share. Both of the burgers arrived in a sourdough sesame seed bun, and were fit to burst with the most delicious garnish. The mango and ginger salsa that came with the sweet potato and bean offering was delectable, and the mint and red onion garnish with the bhaji burger was pretty darn tasty too. In fact - the burgers were so big and so tasty that they warranted knife and fork action! The Sweet Potato and Bean burger was sweet, but not overly so and the bhaji burger would make the best sort of hangover fodder. The portion of chips easily fed two and were perfectly fluffy and well-seasoned. All in all, top notch grub that beats rival Gourmet Burger Kitchen hands-down.

Although the Trinity Centre has been unbelievably busy and the queues for some of the restaurants have been quite literally out of the door, I think that a meal at the Handmade Burger Co is more than worth waiting for.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

A very Croatian engagement

Last time I blogged (which seems like many moons ago), I mentioned that I was off to Croatia to eat my weight in meat and seafood.

Well, eat my weight in meat and seafood I most definitely did. And pizza. And pasta. And risotto. All washed down with the biggest glasses of red wine you ever did see. We had the most lovely holiday.

We flew to Split, where we climbed the tower of Diocletian's Palace. I ate the most gorgeous seafood risotto, and we saw the sunrise from our apartment window, which was in the attic of a little house that was up a narrow, winding street.

Then we took the ferry to Korcula. We went on long walks, got lost a lot, explored the deserted Old Town, drank glasses of wine that cost 85p by the seafront and ate pizza that was bigger than our head.

Next it was off to Hvar, the most beautiful of islands. On the first day, we paddled in the sea, watched the yachts come in and out of the harbour and spent the afternoon in the town's little cafes, drinking cold beer.

On the second day, we walked up to the castle, hired bikes, cycled to a beach and walked along a rocky coastal footpath to a deserted cove. While we were sitting on the rocks, watching the clear blue sea sparkle in the sunshine, Ash asked me to marry him. 

I said a big fat yes.

Unbeknownst to me, he'd been carrying around a bag of Haribo rings all holiday, waiting for the right moment.

We celebrated by drinking Slovenian sparkling wine, getting very giddy, going to a beautiful restaurant in the harbour, eating delicious calamari, mussels and a seafood platter that was the most divine thing ever.

The next day we decided to leave our little (very budget) apartment behind and check into a hotel for our last night in honour of our newly engaged status. By some fluke of luck, the mid-range hotel we'd booked had closed - and instead we were told that there was a room for us for the same price in the most expensive, luxurious Spa hotel on the island that overlooked the harbour.

We spent the afternoon swimming in their salt water swimming pool, drinking appletinis in their roof-top bar until the sun went down, and generally grinning from ear to ear.

Words can't paint a picture of how happy I am, so maybe this photo will do the talking for me. x

Friday, 5 April 2013

Meat Free March Recipe Swap : The results are in!

I've celebrated the start of British Summer Time by eating a hell of a lot of meat. From pork and black pudding sausages to bacon, ham and tuna steak, I've enjoyed every mouthful after a month of beans and lentils. Ham hock, chorizo, sea bass, mussels, pork belly and lardons have had a look in too. My body has become a living, breathing temple to meat and fish. So much so, the chances of fitting into any of my summer clothes in time for my holiday to Croatia are now slim to none. Especially as I go on holiday tomorrow. Whoops.
However, when I return, there'll be plenty of deliciously healthy veggie and vegan recipes to tuck in to and help me on my way to losing the holiday bulge. These come courtesy of the lovely folk who participated in our Meat Free March recipe swap. 

So, who cooked what?
As I'm sure you'll agree, all of these blog posts make their swapees recipes look and sound tastier than an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet at Hansa's. Trying to pick a blog to win our wonderful prizes was harder than finding a grain of couscous in a haystack. That's why, when Fay and I held our X Factor style judging panel  over Google chat last night, we decided to give not one, but two brilliant bloggers a prize (controversial - I expect there'll be Daily Mail headlines about this tomorrow!).

First up, Susie from Susie's Tummy Tales will be receiving a month's supply of fresh veg boxes from the brilliant Abel and Cole. Fay and I loved the humour in Susie's post and the fact that she was the only participant to give a vegan dessert a stab (thanks to Sharon's recipe). Top marks go to her especially because she served them in homous pots (we encourage recycling). Fay and I also decided that Susie is a worthy winner because she linked to Gregg Wallace's buttery biscuit base. I am a not-so-secret fan girl of Greg Wallace (it's something about the glasses, the love of desserts, and the way he whacks a spoon in his gob). As a greengrocer, I feel Gregg would approve of Susie winning a month's supply of vegetable goodies. 

Secondly, Sharon at Virtually Vegan wins a (veggie friendly) meal at Handmade Burger Co in honour of her effort. The Meat Free March recipe post marked Sharon's first ever foray into vegan blogging, and we think she's off to a pretty bloomin' great start. We hope the winning meal will encourage her to keep at it - maybe a restaurant review could be next? 

So, there we have it, meat-free Marchers. Susie and Sharon - please drop me a line with your address to and your prizes will be winging their way over to you sooner than you can shout "lots of lovely lentils please". To the rest of you - a big, big thank you for participating, for keeping Fay and I sane in our quest for the perfect veggie recipe and for giving me the opportunity to spend hours reading and looking at lots of lovely sausage-free food porn. 

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Meat Free March Recipe Swap: Amy's Penne alla Vodka

We're just a few hours away from 12am on the 1st of April 2013 - when meat is officially back on the menu again. In case you hadn't noticed, there's been a distinct lack of sausage in my life this month. There's been no bacon, no breast fillets, no little prawnies peeking out from beneath a bed of delicious paella. Have I missed meat? Good God yes. But, I'll let you in on a little secret - it hasn't been all bad. To tell you the truth, I've actually quite enjoyed it. I've loved discovering a ton of recipes, eating out in all sorts of weird and wonderful places and picking dishes from a menu that I'd never normally touch with a barge pole, only to discover that they're actually quite delicious. 

Best of all, I've loved meeting new people and discovering a  ton of amazing blogs via the Meat Free March recipe swap that Fay from Food Fables and I organised. Joined by a whole host of brilliant people, this swap has seen veggie and vegan recipes fly back and forth from different ends of the country. From coconut and lime vegan cheesecake to pumpkin and chickpea salad with tahini and flatbreads, to Dirty John Quinoa and cornbread with a blackbean and jalapeno sauce, I've loved reading the Meat Free March recipe swap blogs (and there are more to come - watch this space!). They've provided me with a lovely lot of inspiration to see me through my final meat free days.

I had the pleasure of sending Amy a couple of my favourite mid-week veggie recipes - Feta and Spinach Pie (which was actually first cooked for me by Hannah over at Girl Eats Vegan - hi Hannah!) and a flavoursome Thai Curry which is one of Ash's favourites and a firm staple in our household.

In return, I was tres excited when a package from Amy turned up which contained two of my most favourite things - vodka and mini eggs. Although I would have been quite happy to consume both of these gifts in one sitting without any accompanying foodstuffs, Amy had also popped in a recipe for Penne Alla Vodka - a go to dish in her house for when she "doesn't want to be in the kitchen for too long but wants  something carbey,  cheesy and delicious!"

So, here's Amy's Penne alla Vodka, a recipe she's created herself having taken inspiration from both Nigella and a Smitten Kitchen:

Penne alla Vodka (serves two)
200g penne (we didn't have any in so made some fresh tagliatelle!)
salt and pepper
can of chopped tomatoes
squeeze of tomato paste
one white onion (diced)
one or two cloves of garlic (crushed/grated)
100ml double cream
2 big glugs of vodka
a few fresh leaves of basil to taste
lots of parmesan (or veggie alternative)
a handful of frozen peas (optional)

Fry the chopped onions in a little oil.

Once the onion has softened, add the garlic and fry for another two minutes.

Pour in the first glug of vodka, followed by the can of tomatoes, squeeze of tomato paste and a generous helping of cracked black pepper. For a smoother sauce, you can add a pinch of sugar too.

Leave to bubble whilst you cook the penne in a pan of salted water (or, in our case, get that tagliatelle rolled and then popped in a pan for a couple of minutes!)

Just before the pasta is done, add a handful of frozen peas to the sauce.

Leave to bubble for a minute, then add the cream to the sauce, take off the heat and stir through.

Drain the pasta and return to the pan with the other glug of vodka and a big knob of butter.

When the vodka has burnt off a bit of the alcohol, stir in the sauce.

Serve with basil torn up and a heap of parmesan. Best consumed with a crispy green salad and a big glass of vino.

You might have noticed a distinct lack of mini eggs in the recipe. Apparently the Smitten Kitchen serves brownies as a dessert to this dish, which is why Amy included them, but I'm ashamed to say I'd scoffed them all before the onions had even got anywhere near a chopping board.  Whooops!

Although not a recipe for someone on a diet, this was a mid-week dish that was completely delicious and felt extremely decadent. To be honest, I was a bit wary that the vodka was going to be slightly over powering and I found myself adding little tipples rather than big glugs, but, if anything, I would get back to my Essex girl roots and not hold back next time. Amy suggested that adding prawns into the mix at the same time as the peas goes down a real treat too - and it's definitely an addition I'll be trying soon!

A big thanks to Amy for her lovely recipe and to all the other Meat Free March recipe swappers for helping a sister out. Fay and I are forming a panel (I'm the Louis Walsh to her Simon Cowell) to decide which swapper will receive a prize of a month's supply of Abel and Cole boxes and a meal at the wonderful (and veggie friendly) Handmade Burger Co - and all I can say is that if the recipes and blog posts are of a standard similar to the ones I've seen so far, it's going to be a hard choice to make!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

How an Abel & Cole veg box saved Meat Free March

When I decided to spend March meat-free, I knew that I wasn't going to be able to get my foodie kicks from a month of jacket potatoes, Linda McCartney sausages and lentils. But, whilst I love experimenting with different recipes, the veg aisle in the supermarket doesn't usually get much of a look in when meat's on the menu - I tend to stick to what I know (mainly tons of cucumber, potatoes, salad, sweet potato and the odd butternut squash).  More to the point, prior to my month of vegetarianism my knowledge of when different fruit and veg is in season was pretty abysmal. I didn't know my spring greens from my autumn roots.

So I thanked the lord of lettuce and leeks when Abel & Cole got in touch and offered to send me a large vegetable box to encourage me on my path of meat free March. For those of you who haven't heard of Abel & Cole, they are the door-to-door angels of organic, seasonal fruit and veg boxes (and they also offer a ton of other brilliant produce too). For as little as £10 a week, their lovely local drivers will deliver a box full of the freshest, most in-season organic veg (or fruit, or fruit and veg), along with a whole host of beautiful recipes that are published weekly and occasionally the odd freebie too. They also deliver meat and fish (obviously not to me this month!), gorgeous looking ready-meals, loaves of bread and store cupboard staples like those all-important bars of chocolate. Although some of the produce is a little on the pricey side, I personally think their fruit and veg boxes are brilliant value for money and the service is wonderfully convenient - especially if, like me,  you don't have a car.

So, you can imagine my excitement last Friday when I arrived at work to be greeted by a lovely box by my desk that was full to the brim with exciting veg for me to try. One of the drawbacks of living in a flat in the city centre without a concierge service is that Abel & Cole weren't able to deliver to my home as there isn't easy access into the building or a safe place to leave the box (and the drivers deliver from 3am in the morning!). However, they were more than happy to deliver to my office and the lovely, sustainable packaging and accompanying recipe book got lots of my colleagues talking excitedly.

From avacado to beetroot, chinese leaf to watercress, green pointed cabbage to green batavia lettuce, all of the veg in my box was beautifully fresh and I was eager to get home and plan my week's meals around it. Although not everything was to my taste (celery sends me out in a cold rash), the beauty of Abel & Cole's model is that if you don't like something, you can ask for it not to be delivered again. Although you can't specifically specify what you'd like to receive, part of the joy is in the surprise.

I think that's the key to Abel & Cole - by delivering a real mixture of amazing produce, most of which is a surprise, it makes you want to use it and to try new things. Normally Ash and I start from scratch each week when it comes to shopping - we plan our meals around various recipes, not around what we have in the cupboard. Sometimes there'll be an evening when we don't have anything planned, so we end up buying a takeaway, going out or putting a cheeky pizza in the oven which can soon rack up cost-wise. But by having a stash of veg in the cupboards, there's never a reason not to make something fresh and super tasty. We did a tiny shop to compliment the veg - spending just £19 on a week's groceries.

Brocolli, Feta and Walnut soup from the Veg Box Companion book

Since the veg box arrived last week, we've already eaten a ton of fresh greens - not just boring stuff like cabbage and lettuce, but exciting stuff too. And if we're stumped for ideas, the wonderful Veg Box Companion book that came with the box offers a whole host of delicious looking recipes and ideas for perfect seasonal veg combinations.

This week has already seen the kitchen come alive with a truly tasty broccoli,  feta and walnut soup and a colcannon littered with spring greens, carrots, lemon and Parmesan. Still to come on the menu there's haloumi kebabs with lemon and thyme baste, Chinese leaf parcels and a delicious veggie chilli with homemade guacamole. I could get used to eating like this every week.

So, a massive thanks to the veg box guardian angels for helping me to keep the meat free March faith, for encouraging me to try new things and for keeping a fridge in veggie heaven. The lovely folk at Abel & Cole have also offered the winner of our Meat Free March recipe swap a month's supply of veg boxes, so I look forward to reading what tasty, seasonal spring time (err, if you can call it that with all this snow) treats the winner concocts with their supply!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

A how to guide to vegetarian dinner parties

I'll be completely honest -  whenever we've had a dinner party in the past my heart has always sunk a little bit when I've realised that we've got a vegetarian guest making their merry way to ours to quaff our wine and avoid our meat. It's not that I don't love my veggie friends - I do - it's just a bit of a faff to cater separately for an animal loving mate.

However, if meat free March has taught me anything, it's that there's a lot of really exciting vegetarian cookbooks and ideas out there - and catering for a veggie at a dinner party needn't be tricky. From Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall to Kaushy Patel, Yotam Ottolenghi to Nobu Matushisha, there are a lot of brilliant chefs doing great things with vegetables right now. In fact, some of the veggie food I've cooked this month has been so delicious I'd happily serve it to my sausage loving friends, and to be honest I doubt they'd even notice that the meat was missing. 

Last weekend Ash's parents came to stay. To finish the weekend off in a memorable way, Ash and I decided to go all out and cook a feast set to wow. As three out of four of us eating were veggie, we went the whole meat-free hog and drew up a completely vegetarian menu. A main course of fresh raviolli stuffed with roasted butternut squash and walnuts, homemade garlic bread and salad, followed by creme brulees (hello blowtorch!) and a cheese board went down an absolute treat - and I think it's fair to say that meat wasn't missed by anyone.

So, what are my top five tips for holding a vegetarian dinner party or catering for a vegetarian guest?

1. Just cause it's veggie, there's no reason to be too heavy on the carbs 

We recently went to a tasting evening at a local restaurant where every vegetarian dish - although delicious - was accompanied with a heavy load of carbs. Potatoes, bread, chips, pasta - sometimes more than one of the above per course, all taking the place of something meaty. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a massive lover of carby accompaniments - but you need to think about your guest's stomachs. Bloatedness does not a happy dinner party go-er make.

2. Think of the veggies first, and pick a recipe with a meaty alternative

There's lots of gorgeous veggie dishes that can easily be tweaked to make a meaty alternative if you're catering for both herbivores and omnivores. For instance, the barley, tomato and garlic risotto that I blogged about the other day could easily welcome some last-minute fried chorizo for your sausage loving guests. If you're thinking of going down the fresh pasta route, ravioli is perfect for both meat lovers and rabbit foodies alike - simply whip up two different fillings and cook separately.  It's a lot easier to think veggie first and then adapt to meet the needs of your meat eaters than it is to do it the other way round!

3. Timings, timings, timings. 

If you're going all out veggie, it's still important to think about your timings. OK, so you might not have a massive hunk of beef to get just right, but there's not much worse than an overcooked carrot. If I'm cooking something complicated or a meal that's spread over a number of courses, I always sit down with a piece of paper beforehand and work backwards with the recipes from the time that I'm intending to serve. If there's an element of the dish that can be made in advance, crack on and do it. It's not rocket science!

4. Leaf? With everything? Be inventive!

If I had a tenner for the amount of veggie dishes I've had at restaurants etc this month that have been hidden under a pile of leaf, I'd be a very rich lady. Just because a vegetarian isn't a fan of meat, it doesn't mean they want to hang out in a lettuce patch all day either. If you want to serve salad as part of your menu or as a garnish that's fine, but be inventive with it! Think fresh beetroot, fruit, nuts. The world is a salady-oyster.

5. The proof is in the pudding

As long as you're catering for a veggie and not a vegan, thinking of a pudding to perfectly compliment your main course should be a doddle. Just remember to avoid gelatin and rennet and check your guest's attitude to eggs. The same goes for a cheese board or dishes that contain that hard cheeses such as Parmesan - it may be best to scour out a vegetarian alternative.

My attitude to cooking for my veg loving friends has changed considerably over the past few weeks, and my attitude to dinner party dining will never be the same. Have you had problems being creative with the veggie food you serve at dinner parties? Do you find veggie guests a difficulty or do you relish the challenge? And if you're a veggie, have you ever been made to feel unwelcome at a foodie gathering? I'd love to know your thoughts!