Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Diary of a Diet

Today I am talking about that dreaded word, diet, and what lovely food I've been eating while on said diet. Skip on by if it's not your cup of tea, this is just a blip, I can assure you.

There are always times when I lose my cooking mojo, when the "What are we having for tea tonight..." question threatens to suck the very life blood out of me, but I have, however, never lost my eating mojo. I've been doing a lot of eating over these last few months and the long and short of it is that I could no longer do up my trousers and six weeks ago I joined Slimming World*. Oh, and my running buddy moved to Australia so it's not all my fault.

Now, a better person than me would simply cut back and make some sensible choices, but I lack the motivation and will power. I know from past experience that I need the threat of the "weigh in" every Tuesday morning, I need to hand over £5 each week, to kick me up the bum and help me lose a bit of weight. Now, I'll be clear - I was not overweight as such (my BMI was within the healthy range although it was very much at the top end) and my height means that I can carry some extra weight more comfortably than others might - but I refuse to go out and buy new clothes when I've got lots of perfectly good ones in the wardrobe.

And - I guess it comes as no surprise - I found that changing the way I eat reinvigorated my enthusiasm for cooking. Particularly for breakfast and lunch, when I can please myself and not worry about meeting everyone's preferences (impossible at the best of times). I've been keeping a food diary and today I thought I'd share some of the meals I've been eating over the last few weeks. To give you a rough idea, with Slimming World you can eat as much fruit, veg, pulses, eggs, pasta, rice, potato, lean meat and fish as you like. You can eat a limited amount of dairy and grains (bread, cereal etc) and everything else must be weighed, counted and limited. It is essentially a very low fat diet. These meals below all (pretty much) count as "free" which means no weighing or counting, just working on common sense portion control and making sure there is a good amount of fresh fruit or vegetables on the plate.


Lighter breakfasts:

1. Muesli with skimmed milk, chopped fruit and fat free yogurt. Quick and easy, this has become my usual breakfast on most school mornings. I have to remember to weigh the muesli as it counts as a grain.

2. Scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and wilted spinach. Very good. The natural fish oils in the salmon gave the eggs a velvety texture.

3. Porridge (weighed) with chopped peach and a teaspoon of honey. This is my other school day staple. Any other soft fruits work well too.

4. Poached eggs with spinach and smoked salmon. Amazing, even with one of the eggs a bit overdone.

5. Pancakes topped with fat free vanilla yogurt, pureed strawberries and sliced banana. This is really nice once I got used to two things: the pancakes are heavier than my usual American style ones, and the whole meal is less sweet than my usual kind of pancake breakfast, which I like to eat swimming in maple syrup.

6. Tomato and basil omelette. That was good. It was just the right amount of runny in the middle and I got it to flip over neatly - that never usually happens. My omelettes usually look like scrambled eggs. 


Planning is everything for nice breakfasts. My default choices were usually cereal or toast, and that was because they are quick, convenient, filling and tasty. If I want to make an omelette on a school morning, and eat it without rushing, then I must get up ten minutes earlier. But then the upside of that is that I sit down at the table and eat in a more mindful way, rather than eating standing up while emptying the dishwasher, checking my phone and making packed lunches, and that is no bad thing.

Shopping habits change. We are getting through twice as many eggs and lots more fruit and vegetables, and I found that to do this properly I need to have the right food in the fridge. I think I'd really struggle to do Slimming World if I didn't like eggs as much as I do.


Lighter lunches:**

1. Baked potato with cottage cheese and chives. My number one favourite lunch, a baked potato - quick, easy, filling and versatile. 

2. Chicken (marinated in yogurt and harrissa paste and grilled, leftover from dinner) and couscous salad with coriander, avocado, pomegranate seeds and salad leaves.

3. Pea, potato and spring onion frittata.

4. Pasta salad with tuna, anchovies, green beans, cherry tomatoes, cannellini beans and parsley.

5. Nearly-nicoise salad: new potatoes, smoked salmon, eggs and salad leaves.

6. Salmon (baked with ginger, garlic, soy sauce and lime, leftover from dinner) with salad leaves, cucumber and sugar snap peas.

7.  Jacket potato with tinned mackerel in tomato sauce and a green salad.

8. Salad of watercress, roasted butternut squash, butter beans and pumpkin seeds.


Again, planning. I have to remember to put the potato in the oven an hour before I want to eat it. I have to remember to cook meals with leftovers in mind, but I always do that anyway. 

It's easy to eat like this when I'm based at home. If I was out at work, I'd have to prepare all this the night before so that it was ready to go in a tuppaware box first thing. Not impossible, but more of a chore than buying a sandwich.

It's very salad heavy, but that's fine with me, I love salad. If it was winter it would all be soups. Some fat free salad dressings I like are: soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, lemon or lime juice, fat free yogurt mixed with mint. I'm sure there are more.

I could have bread here, if I counted it, but if I had bread I'd want butter, and cheese or peanut butter, and lots of other nice things that are higher in fat. So salads or jacket potatoes work for me. Also, it's hard to over-eat carbs when they aren't covered in butter or oil.


Lighter dinners:

Again, these meals are largely "free" with any extra bread measured and counted as one of my two "healthy choices". 

1. Smoked mackerel and sweet potato fishcakes with some veg and plain fat free yogurt for dipping, recipe from here. Very good leftover and reheated in the oven for lunch, too.

2. Spanish-style fish stew: cod, prawns and red peppers cooked with onions, chopped tomatoes and paprika, with couscous.

3. Veggie burgers with coriander relish in a wholemeal bun, with coleslaw, corn on the cob, and sweet potato fries. All very tasty apart from the coleslaw which was made with fat free yogurt and was horrible, frankly.

4. Chicken and pepper stir-fried with lime, garlic and chilli, with rice and sweet chilli sauce. (I found some of those packets of flavoured rice that you stick in the microwave on offer and thought I'd try them - this one was lime and sweet chilli flavour, and very nice it was too.) This was a meal when I was cooking just for myself and couldn't really be arsed.

5. Steak with homemade chips, corn on the cob and asparagus.

6. Salmon baked in lime, garlic, ginger and soy sauce, with noodles, spring onions, red pepper and sugar snap peas. Delicious. I'd eat salmon every night if I could but John doesn't like it as much as me.


You have to cook from scratch. I usually do, but the odd time when I've used a ready-made jar of curry or chinese-style sauce, because I was in a rush or whatever, you pay for it. I've found them to be much less healthy than cooking a curry sauce yourself.

Eating this way can be more expensive. All that extra meat and fish, and the huge amount of fruit and veg I am buying, does add up. Lately I am shopping at Aldi three weeks out of four, and going to my usual supermarket on the other week for everything Aldi doesn't stock. I'm also using my local greengrocer a lot, buying lots of lovely seasonal fruits that are temptingly displayed outside under the awning.


So, there we have it. It's gone well overall, and I really like all the extra energy I have and that fact that my clothes fit again. Mainly I've enjoyed eating so much extra fruit. I've lost on average about 2 pounds a week, over six weeks. I would definitely have lost more if I drank less wine...

I really thought I'd miss cake. But I don't, and that's been surprising to me. My times of day when I want sugar are mid morning, after lunch and late afternoon, with the post-school run cup of tea. Mid-morning, I have a banana with my coffee. After lunch I have some fruit and yogurt, with a teaspoon of jam or honey mixed in I want extra sweetness. In the afternoon I just stand over the sink, eating dripping peaches and nectarines until the craving for sweetness goes. But oh, I've missed butter! Butter on baked potatoes, on bread, on toast, in risottos...yes, I have missed butter. And cheese. My daily treat would always be a glass of wine over a chocolate bar (don't judge me) and that's what I use my "syns" points allowance for. I do not love everything about Slimming World (in particular their fondness for artificial sweeteners as a "healthier" choice) but overall I've found it very effective and much less painful than other diets that I've tried over the years.

Have you tried Slimming world? I'd love to hear any recipes you've found that are particularly tasty. 


*This is not a sponsored post, I'm just sharing my experiences here.

** I can't type those words without thinking of Light Lunch, that brilliant daytime TV cooking /chat programme with Mel and Sue years ago, which I used to watch when I was a student. Does anyone else remember it?

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Tiniest Spare Room There Ever Was

Do you remember our box room? That very small third bedroom, which was a nursery, then a bedroom, then an office? Well it's changed again. It's now a spare room, but still a kind of office of sorts. It's still small though, that hasn't changed.

We dismantled that lovely big, white desk and put it back in the garage. It will be used again, I am sure. In it's place we squeezed - and I do mean squeezed, we had to move the radiator - a single bed. But not just any single bed, a trundle bed. 

Look, it's like a double decker bed! 

It turns out that the sofa bed downstairs, which all our lovely house guests have always slept on, isn't that comfortable, and once they got wind of our spare third bedroom, hints were dropped about the possibility of putting a bed in this room. It's quite a clever contraption. Even I can manage it. You pull out the bed underneath, lower the legs and behold, you have either two single beds or one huge double bed.

When no-one is staying, the bed is covered over with a throw and, with the addition of a little clip-on lamp, makes a lovely reading spot. I mockingly call it a "day bed" and the kids love sitting up there people watching.

On the other wall, we had a chair (now in the loft) and an old IKEA bookcase. Now we have something here which I am ridiculously excited about, as space saving measures go - a drop down desk from IKEA!! Look, isn't it great?

We use it as a desk, as we still have the filing cabinet and all our paperwork in that room, and it can also be used as a dressing table too, or anything really.

And then, when we have people staying, the bed comes out and is made up (which is actually pretty hard work as it's sooo wide), and the chair is put on the landing and the desk lowered.

And there you have it, a very big bed in a very small room. It works, just, and has so far had very good reviews.

 It did mean that a curtain tie-back was needed though, as the position of the bed means the curtain must be pulled to one side. Really, a blind would be a lot better here now, but a curtain is what we have and so I made the best of it with a striped tie-back. 

The colours are supposed to echo what is in the room, with the mustard, teal, pink and grey. There is something summery about the stripes, they remind me of the beach, of deckchairs.

I don't mind losing our big desk as, to be honest, I never really used it. I still do any sewing or computer work downstairs, at the dining room table, as I always have done and probably always will. It was very handy for photographing things though! Luckily, the new little desk will do, for now.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Friday Happies

1. Pretty things that come in the post.

When I was young and carefree I worked in a bookshop in the centre of Leeds. Most lunchtimes I would pop to the shops, and often found my way into the branch of Accessorize just around the corner where I'd invariably leave with some kind of, well, accessory. Now, I just buy them from Etsy. I guess I haven't really changed all that much. Same fripperies, different shop.

That tablecloth does go in the wash, I promise!

 2. Flowers in the house. 

Whilst staying last weekend, my Mum accidentally snipped these hydrangeas from my neighbour's plant while cutting the hedge. Lucky me! Do you ever feel that some people just don't deserve the amazing plants or gardens they have? I mean, my neighbour, he's really nice, but I know that he NEVER does anything to his front garden, and yet this huge, amazing, abundant, glorious hydrangea blooms every year, and it's all I can do not to sneak round there after dark and liberate a few flowers. I have two, yes two, blooms on the weedy hydrangea in my garden. Maybe I should start neglecting it? Oh wait, I already do that.

Mum also bought me a bunch of sunflowers. I like sunflowers, and I love my Mum, and not just because she buys me flowers. She's a constant ally, giver of love and support, warmth and humour. I don't know if I tell her that enough.

3. Extra time.

But not in the football sense. I had anticipated that I'd be spending all day Wednesday baking in school. Instead, we were done by 11 am and I unexpectedly found myself with four hours all to myself, which felt like a reprieve in a busy week. I felt giddy when I drove away from the school. Right then, I thought, prioritise yourself here Gillian! So I went to my local yarn shop, bought some more cotton yarn and planned a little holiday project, then I rang the tax office, then I sat at the laptop and caught up on a huge amount of banking, admin and other boring stuff for two hours which was extremely satisfying. 

4. End of term.

Although, technically, we break up on Monday, so we are not quite there yet, but it feels like end of term. Teacher gifts (washcloths and soap) are finished and wrapped, cards are made.

I like teachers (we have a few in my family so I am biased) and I especially like the ones at our school. Now is not a fun time to be teaching, I think, given the current political climate, and I am more than happy to give them my support through beautifully exfoliated skin and scribbly felt pen cards. (Angus wrote: "Mrs C. I like you. Love from Angus.)

So, that's us, just bumbling along until end of term, counting down the days until we go on holiday. Is it warm where you are? Here, it's been perfect. Yesterday was especially gorgeous; sunshine, blue skies and really properly warm weather, in the high twenties. It feels good and right and how summer should be. 

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

My Local

Sometimes, when you live in a city as big as Leeds, you feel that you could be living anywhere. 

But one thing I really do appreciate about my corner of this city it how rural - how Yorkshire - it can feel, with it's horses and dry stone walls. I'm thankful that I feel safe enough to walk around my local area when it's dark, with my friends and my camera, chatting and snapping as I go, saying hello to runners, dog walkers or people just out for a stroll. Being friendly.

A couple of weeks ago, on a mild and overcast night not long after midsummer, my two very good friends and I walked to a nearby pub. We sat outside with our beers and food for as long as we could, until it started to rain a little, then we moved inside and ordered a bottle of red wine. When we left much, much later, the orange light from the streetlamp made the tall grasses glow and there was still a faint glimmering in the westernmost corner of the sky.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Kitchen Notes In Soft Fruit Season

There were strawberries from the field (and the supermarket).

And there was rhubarb from the garden.

And so there was strawberry and rhubarb jam.

In the rare event that I grow anything edible, it cannot be lost in a mere crumble or pie. It must be jammed, bottled or canned, so that I can gloat for as long as possible.

And, actually, this is a pretty fantastic flavour combination, not too sweet, not too tart.

There were two wrinkled peaches in the fruit bowl. Not so much on the turn as fully flipped. 

With strawberries, they formed the basis of a simple, delicious summer crumble. 

John ate his with cream, I had mine with fat free vanilla yogurt. I really wanted vanilla ice cream but I'm on a diet. It was still lush, though.

And then there was some basil in a jug, also on the kitchen windowsill.

I'd always wanted to try strawberry and basil jam, and so I did. Just a small amount, enough for two small jars, as I wasn't sure if I'd like it.

I like it a lot. It has a faintly anise flavour, a little grassy, if that makes sense. John and the kids are less enamoured, but I think it's a more grown-up version of strawberry jam. Also, the thought of strawberries and basil - two flavours that are so evocatively summery - together, pleases me no end. The only thing I don't like about it the way the leaves go in the jam; a bit brown and weathered, and you want to pick them out. Next time I might try and make a kind of basil bouquet garnis or something similar, so that I can infuse the fruit with the herby flavour but not include the leaves in the bottling process. Has anyone else experience of making strawberry and basil jam?

So that is what you can make throughout the week in soft fruits season, with a load of strawberries and whatever you can find languishing in the fruit bowl or on the kitchen windowsill.

Summer's great, isn't it?

Friday, 11 July 2014

Friday Happies

I'm glad I have this routine, this anchor of sorts, in my blogging week as otherwise I don't think I'd have made the time to sit down at the laptop today. As I look back at the photos I see that it has in fact been a pretty good week, if a busy one, and that's why writing these Friday posts is so important to me. It makes me stop and notice, prompts me to record these moments, and then I remember and am grateful.

So here are this week's happies:


1. Breakfast with John in a lovely new cafe not far from us in West Leeds, just after we'd dropped the kids off at school. I love the idea of going out for breakfast and I'd already looked at their menu online and chosen what I wanted. (I don't get out much.) I had their "Baked Beans" which was homemade baked beans (amazing) on top of toasted sourdough (my favourite kind of toast) topped with a poached egg and scattered with chorizo. Seriously good. I didn't eat again until about 4 pm that day. And fantastic coffee too, with the milk in cute little mini bottles - I'm such a sucker for details like that. I'm so excited that we finally have somewhere lovely to eat nearby!

2. Good weather, and the opportunity to be outside in that sunshine. 

I looked after Bella and her best friend yesterday as their teacher was on strike, and it was such a happy day. There was playing, baking, crafting, bubble blowing and general free spirited merriment. It felt like there was some education in there, just a different kind to what happens at school. And I even managed some crochet in the garden.

3. Crochet, specifically crocheting in these gorgeous colours. Oh, I love crochet, I really do. Looks at those tight little stitches, row after of uniform neatness.*

I don't normally understand what people mean when they talk about colour-play, I just like the colours I like, but when I was selecting these I thought...oooh, hello new favourite colours. The cool blue and gritty grey, the rose pink - just soft enough but not too sugary - and that sandy mustard, always a favourite of mine. 

4. The way these clothes hung on the washing line, in a row of glowing primary brights.

5. The simple act of preparing a spare room for guests. We haven't had a spare room for some years, using instead a sofa bed downstairs, and it was so nice to potter around making the space look pretty, buying flowers, folding towels. Trying to make a tiny bedroom look as welcoming as possible.

6. This amazing bumper parcel of goodies my parents brought me back from their recent holiday in France. 

Salted caramel sauce, a star fish, blackberry jelly (ok, Mum made that last week, that's not from France), divine smelling soap and....FISH SOUP! 

I am obsessed with this stuff. I could slurp it by the gallon, it is one of my absolute favourite things in the world. And this brand is from the Vendee, a region I love, the place of many, many happy childhood beach holidays. 

And bonbons!! Does anyone else like these? I can thank them for my excellent knowledge of the French words for most fruits. 

7. This pretty, elegant enamel coffee pot I found in a vintage shop in Saltaire today. I love the shape and that deep navy blue. A total bargain, it would have been wrong to leave it behind.

I promise to change the table cloth soon, it seems to have featured a lot here.


Well done if you made it to the end. I always forget how relentlessly busy end of term feels. It's a bit like the run up to Christmas; extra assemblies, plays or performances to attend, fairs to bake for, teacher gifts to make or buy, extra things in the diary that I mustn't forget. And then the (very welcome and long overdue) arrival of my lovely parents for the weekend, which was all arranged at the last minute, leaves me running around thinking about shopping lists and spare bedding and forgetting to blog. And then another day passes, and then another, and it's hard to return. I'm going to blog LOADS next week! You have been warned.

I feel better for writing this post. I knew I would.


* It's a curtain tie back for the box room, which was Angus's bedroom and is now a spare room - more on that next week.