Sunday, 27 October 2013

Love/hate lasagne

I have a love/hate relationship with lasagne. With making it, anyway (the eating part is all love.) I find it hugely satisfying to pull a huge dish full of food out of the oven, I love that it easily makes so many portions, and it's perfect for serving to lots of people at once. But honestly, any recipe that uses more than three pans will try my patience. I made a beef lasagne a few months ago for a party and although it was really delicious, constructing it kept me up until almost midnight. 

But a few weeks ago, I came across a Spinach and Tomato Lasagne recipe that looked so good I was tempted to relax my lasagne ban. I'm glad I did; It kept us going through an incredibly tense Great British Bake Off final. Unlike the finalists' wedding cakes, it didn't take me six hours to make, and actually it's a breeze compared to a classic lasagne. 

It looked so fresh before it went in the oven!

And it didn't look too bad when it came out, either. Excuse my feet. (Scroll right down for the recipe.)

My long run this week is planned for tomorrow, although judging by the forecast it might be a very soggy one. The autumn colours in Acton Park are stunning:

I have been trying to make the most of London lately. This seems to have coincided with more hungover Sunday mornings ... Saturday night by St. Paul's - I love the way the dome looms up at you gleaming when you turn every corner:

My friend Ellie has been drawing up a West London bucket list. First on the agenda was Sunday lunch at The Dove in Hammersmith which I cannot recommend enough. Get there early, though; it fills up fast and it's tiny. We all had the roast which arrived almost instantly and reminded me of how wonderful red cabbage is. We sat inside but they had the big patio doors open and the autumn light was flooding in - there are vines in the roof and it has a lovely indoors-outdoors feeling. 

When we finished lunch it looked like this so we decided to walk along the tow path to Barnes:

Half an hour later it no longer looked like this. "Drowned rats" doesn't even come close - we got caught in a torrential, never-ending downpour and got absolutely soaked to the skin. Harry Potter and hot chocolate saved the day. Any more suggestions for West London fun?

Spinach & Tomato Lasagne

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Autumn running and a 10k

Autumn arrived and I almost didn't notice. Is it possible to sleep-walk through a whole month? My last post was about summer holidays and ice cream and now here we are in October. September passed me by entirely (too much overtime) and it took a long run in Gunnersbury Park last week to wake me up. All of a sudden - conkers glossy as chocolate icing and leaves underfoot. It felt so good to see something real that wasn't the four walls of the office or the inside of my car. 

Autumn requires subtle shifts. Overnight oats are being gradually ousted by proper porridge. I can't quite get away with bare legs any more but now have to add a clean pair of tights to my morning laundry crisis. I am running in long sleeves again, although I am a long way off from my full winter running regalia (thank God - running in gloves, what a palaver.) 

Good morning: porridge with roasted apples, almond and maple syrup.

Life is quite complicated at the moment and that run last week was just what I needed. What could be simpler than the leaves falling, Autumn coming round again - that sense of resignation and inevitability. 

The sky this morning was beautiful, fragile and somehow apologetic - a real wintry sky, streaked with contrails. One of the best things running has given me is a reason to get up and seize the day. Let's face it, why else would I be up at 7am on a Sunday morning? Today I took part in the Blenheim Palace 10k. It was a hugely nostalgic drive - five years ago exactly my parents dropped me off for the start of my first term at Oxford. (Writing that makes me feel unbelievably old. You can't step in the same river twice, but you can drive down the same stretch of the M40 realising how much has changed in the space of a few years). To all my Oxford friends reading this, hello - we have known each other for FIVE YEARS! I am still such a sucker for anything Oxford-related, hence me signing up for a 10k in another city when there are so many I could have run in London. Any excuse. It was misty as I drove into Woodstock and it was actually freezing when I got out of my car. Despite loads of warnings about congestion trying to get into Blenheim Palace, and then a long walk from the car park to the start line, it actually took no time at all, which meant two hours of hanging around agonising over pre-race nutrition and how to time my trip to the very long queue for the portaloos. The sun came out just before the race started and we were treated to views like this one:

I have had a few pretty poor weeks of running so I wasn’t feeling overly optimistic about this race. Work has barely left time for anything beyond sleeping and eating, and I was battling a rotten cold for a while, too. I haven’t actually run a 10k since my holiday in France and that was over a month ago. But I was pleasantly surprised by my running today. Despite a “gently undulating” course (read: hill start, hill finish, and a killer hill section in the middle) I actually managed to pick up a personal best! I ran 10k in just under one hour. This race felt so different to the Race for Life (the only other organised run I have done) – here were “serious runners” stretching and eating protein bars and doing lunges around the start line. Proud to say I managed to overtake a fair few of them, though, especially on the hilly sections (thanks Languedoc!). I don’t know whose idea it was to finish the race on a hill but it was a pretty spectacular sight:

Someone clearly had fun while planning this route – it was organised by the British Heart Foundation – this really tickled me when I was looking at my account later:

Nice one.

The whole event was really well organised and I would definitely take part again. Maybe next year I will tackle the Half Marathon instead, though, with the “really serious runners”. Running a race is strange to me because I normally experience running as an intensely solitary activity – suddenly there are all these other people all around you, all equally focussed on the same goal. The sound of many runners’ feet on tarmac is like rain falling.

Nothing beats the feeling of stretching with a medal round your neck – except maybe getting to eat a post-race meal of fish and chips.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Running in heaven

I got back from France last week with a few extra freckles, a new-found appreciation for pistachio ice-cream, and over thirty kilometres under my belt. We spent five very relaxing days in a house in Languedoc before driving up to the Loire valley on the way back to England. There's a reason why France is the most visited country in the world ... 

My dad has come up with a pretty winning formula for family holidays over the years, involving a holiday cottage in the middle of nowhere, day trips to towns hosting note-worthy churches, and the promise of one ice cream a day. The daily ice creams were a tactic employed by Mum and Dad to placate us three when we were younger, but I for one am happy to continue that particular family tradition. And it's always good to know the thousands of pounds I spent on my French degree were worth it - putting eleven years of study into practice by translating the ice-cream menus:

Miel et pignons, anyone?

I would love to be able to find a correlation between that daily boule de pistache and some satisfying personal bests. But I think sadly it was more to do with the stunning scenery, lack of other time pressures, and the gorgeous swims I was getting on my rest days. On holiday I was running for the absolute love of it - setting off and not knowing how far I would go or where I would end up. Our house was at the bottom of a valley so whichever direction I set off in, my runs were going to have to be uphill at least half of the way. I can't describe the feeling of starting at the bottom of a mountain and making the summit come closer under your own steam. Even uphill miles fly by when you're being treated to views like this:

I took this on my first run. I set off before dinner and the sun was setting. It was that kind of late summer light that chops and slices and gilds - retouching the landscape in lurid 2D, everything drained flat and the details swimming on the surface. I love the way that mountains look at sunset, as if they're just cardboard cut-outs being held against the horizon. I ran four kilometres uphill to reach the next hamlet and when I turned round to run back down, I honestly felt as if I was running in heaven. Not enough blood getting to my brain, maybe. But it was seriously beautiful.  

I'm really not sure how good doing all that up- and down-hill running would be for my knees in the long term, but in the short-term, I do love that sensation of being able to feel your knees and your thighs and your lungs. I used to hate exercise because I felt it took my body out of my control; now I love it because when I'm on a really long run I have this feeling that I'm taking possession of my own lungs, my own muscles. They may be protesting but they're doing what I'm asking them to do. My body doesn't feel as if it's in the way any more. 

I ran to say hello to the mountains and I ran to say goodbye to them too. On our last night in Languedoc we ate a wonderful dinner under the spreading trees in the tiny square of our little village; when we got home I still had those itchy holiday feet that I developed on my early summer holiday in Cornwall, and decided to go for one last run. It was already getting dark and I was just running by the side of the road, so I knew I couldn't be out for long. Steadily climbing the hillside, I've never known such quiet. It was just me and occasional bats, the light draining out of the hot sky and the first stars appearing. 

Just so Dad doesn't get all the credit, it was my mum who actually came up with the idea for the next leg of our holiday, two nights in Blois. It has its own chateau, an abbey with positively Disney-esque turrets, dozens of places to eat and drink, and the Loire cuts right through it, wide and slow and lovely. Driving through the Loire feels like wandering endlessly through the same painting; the river to your left or right (or sometimes both), chateau after chateau, and everything so lush and green. We had a lovely day out visiting Chambord and driving to a few little towns (to get our ice-cream fix.) This is what you can expect if you visit the Loire:

Ludicrously beautiful, extravagant, wedding cake architecture. All that white stone coupled with the sunshine meant it was actually too bright to look at - Greg and I really struggled to see, and had to borrow Mum's sunglasses to even be able to look at it directly. A literally dazzling sight! And under-25's from the EU get in free (France, I love you.) 

On our first evening in Blois we wandered round the town scoping out places to eat and things to visit. I was secretly also scoping out potential running routes. I got my way the next morning with a satisfyingly speedy (for me) 10k, sneaking in just over 1:04. No hills this time, just little cobbled streets and steps and then swinging out alongside the enormous river as the sun was rising. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves this time. I suppose I could run more quickly if I didn't keep stopping to take photos but scenes like this are too good to miss!

I didn't see another soul until about half-way through my run; French people really don't like Sunday mornings. Just me and the church bells until I hit the 5k mark down some little residential side-street south of the river. I really wanted to finish my 10k in under 1:05 so the final kilometre was a mad dash parallel to the river, and with a few hundred metres to go a huge flock of swifts or swallows suddenly appeared next to me and rushed over my head, so close I could almost have touched them. Every time I visit, I fall deeper in love with France - I can't wait to go back. À la prochaine ... 

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Complete with Limoncello

The rain continues, as does the beetroot obsession. My sister recommended the Green Kitchen Stories to me a few days ago, for their orange overnight oats recipe - after flicking through it I started dreaming about these Grilled Beet Burgers. Yes, they did turn my kitchen into something from a horror movie (beetroot juice absolutely everywhere, thank god my friends were fashionably late for dinner this evening) but they were worth it. Thinking about it now, my love of beetroot has actually only ever extended to the pickled, vacuum-packed variety - why have I never cooked with fresh beetroot before? What a flavour. Basically these burgers are beetroot, oats and feta cheese ...

(Here's one I made earlier)

... with a handful of fresh basil, and seasoning, and eggs to bind it all together. I really recommend that you head over to the the Green Kitchen Stories, anyway (especially if - or perhaps only if - you have a few hours spare to peruse and drool.) 

I served ours with avocado & mustard-dressed salad & cherry tomatoes & sweet potato fries & red onion, in spelt & sunflower rolls. It was very much a use-everything-in-the-fridge meal, before I go away on holiday. 

My housemates are away for the bank holiday weekend so I had to fill the house with other people instead. So nice to be able to spend the evening with friends - counting my blessings again that I've moved to London. Two of my friends are just back from Italy - cue a very warming house-warming gift which will keep me going through the washing-up (if I can be bothered to tackle it tonight ... too tempting to leave it until the morning) ...  

Nightcap anyone?

Friday, 23 August 2013

Jazzy Chicken Noodle Soup

My new house has skylights. Is there any sound better than rain drumming on the windows? Despite the intermittent rain it is still warm here. Driving home on the M4, I crane my neck to watch the clouds herd the sunset into improbable shapes, banked up between the tower blocks and cranes with their distant blinking lights. My car radio is broken, frantically re-tuning itself every 60 seconds, so most of the time I drive in silence with the window open, blowing a gale all the way down the motorway. It gives me time to dissect and digest the day, anyway – if I had a shorter commute I feel I would never switch off before I arrived back home. I’m almost two weeks into my new job now and finally getting to grips with everything. Lots of lessons learnt and I’ve got to know some real characters. I feel like not many jobs would allow you to break up the tedium of afternoon paperwork with a quick game of snap with a group of six-year-olds. All in a day’s work!

I got sent home ill from work yesterday so running hasn’t really happened this week. I’m going to France for a week on Sunday and am planning on running there – I’m flying with Easyjet though (lucky me) and I can only take cabin luggage, so I’ve realised the only way I can actually take my running shoes is to wear them on the plane. If I’m running late I suppose I will be able to fit in a run at Gatwick, I always feel like you traipse for miles round airports anyway! Running while on holiday in Cornwall gave me some of my best ever running experiences (four very sweaty miles with three good friends, cracking up with laughter half the way round, jumping into the ice-cold sea immediately afterwards – memories like that can’t be beaten) so I’m hoping for some good runs in France too. I do have some new recipes to share with you, though. On Monday I had my friend Kate over for dinner which seemed like a good excuse to make this Slice of Slim recipe. Janey from Slice of Slim cooks amazingly inventive Weight Watchers-friendly recipes. I definitely recommend her blog if you’re looking for some healthy inspiration. I loved the idea of this chicken noodle soup, but altered it a little with a few extras I had in the kitchen. This recipe serves one.

Jazzy Chicken Noodle Soup
For the chicken meatballs:
165g chicken breast, minced (you can do this in the food processor)
3 spring onions
2 cloves garlic
½ red chilli, deseeded
1/2cm ginger root (is that the way you measure ginger..? Who knows)
1 tsp soy sauce

For the broth:
50g nest of egg noodles
500ml water
5 mushrooms
1 tbsp soy sauce
½ red chilli, deseeded
juice of 1 lime
a little more ginger

To serve:
a few more spring onions
chopped chives

Finely chop the chicken, garlic, spring onions, chilli and ginger in a food processor. Add the soy sauce. Whizz it up, then combine with your hands into tiny meatballs, about a teaspoons worth of mixture in each. Put them on a plate or tray, cover with cling film and put them in the fridge for a little while (I did this and NONE of my meatballs fell apart when I tried to cook them, which is a definite first for me!)

Place the noodles into the boiling water, along with the mushrooms and soy sauce, chilli, garlic, and lime juice. Place the meatballs carefully into the water. They will take around 6-8 minutes to cook. I put spring greens into my soup as well, just to bulk it out a little bit as I always cook with tons of veg. On reflection though, the greens turned out a little bitter, so I’d leave them out next time. I might experiment with other green veg in there. You don’t want to stir the soup at all as the meatballs need to cook in peace. I have to say they looked quite adorable nestling in among the noodles. Cooking this soup made me happy.

Test one of the meatballs to check they are cooked through. Ladle your soup into a bowl, top with the spring onions and chives. I’m obsessed with limes so I squeezed some more lime juice over the top, and if you feel like it needs more soy sauce, go for it. This works out as 9 propoints per portion. I needn’t have worried about bulking it out at all, either – it was so filling, we could barely finish our bowl-fuls! I think it’s one of the prettiest things I have made in a while, too.


Recently I have been eating very frugally on the nights I’m cooking for one, and veggie burgers with roasted root vegetables has been my go-to meal. On Wednesday night, though, I rebelled and just had to buy some salmon on my way home from work. Enter this gorgeous salad:

I love beetroot. I love the way it stains your hands and the plate. Just like the blueberry juice leaving purple finger prints on the door of the fridge. To make this salad I roasted a salmon fillet with chopped red onion, mushrooms, and black pepper, then served it on a bed of watercress tossed with Dijon mustard, lemon juice and black pepper. Liberally sprinkled with beetroot of course.

Monday, 19 August 2013

C is for Cupcake, D is for Dinosaur

Beautiful day in west London. I’ve snagged one of the pavement spots outside my favourite café; peppermint tea that tastes like drinking a herb garden out of a cup. Today is a slow day, which is what I needed after a week that involved too many ten- and eleven-hour days. Blissful post lie-in breakfast:

Greek yoghurt takes porridge seamlessly from winter to summer, especially if you only half-defrost the blueberries so they keep a little of their frosty chill. Anything is possible after a breakfast like this. Well, almost anything - I had planned to do my long run this morning, but the heat by noon meant that today had to be about speed, not distance. It’s been a while since I set off to just run a 5k course. I first started running using the NHS Couch to 5k Podcasts, which I cannot recommend enough. They ease you in incredibly gently, so you almost don’t realise you’re increasing your mileage every week, and I’m pretty sure that that approach is why I’ve so far been running for six months totally injury-free (touch wood!) When I started, I could not run AT ALL, but sure enough I did manage to run 5k in 30 minutes (and a few seconds) by the end of the nine weeks. After that I embarked on a 10k training plan from The Running Bug which I found really useful, but it took the focus off the 5k distance. Most of my runs do average around 5k or 30 minutes but I thought it would be interesting to see what I could get my time down to now. Today I managed it in 28:20, which shaves a pleasing almost-two-minutes off my previous PB. Before you get any ideas, I have to add that I pretty much keeled over after doing that and took the opportunity to top up my tan in the park for a good quarter of an hour. I found today’s run really satisfying, just to put my nose to the grindstone and bash out the 5k as quickly as possible. I do need to start upping my distance, though: I let myself back into my house and stepped on my race pack from the British Heart Foundation, for their 10k I’m running in October. I get a timing chip for this race, which will be a first. I’m really excited and I’m still looking for someone to run it with me – any takers? It’s on October 6th, at Blenheim Palace.

We haven’t had an official house-warming yet but I suppose we are warming it in stages. Call Saturday night Housewarming Part II. My second official visitor came bearing a chilli plant and a bottle of wine.

I had stayed up ridiculously late on Friday night cooking so that Saturday night would be hassle-free (nothing worse than being stuck in the kitchen while everyone drinks the wine without you.) This lasagne gave me plenty of hassle on Friday night but meant I was free to open all the bottles of wine myself on Saturday! I got this recipe from the September issue of the Weight Watchers magazine. I’m always slightly wary of serving Weight Watchers recipes to my friends, but something I’ve learnt since starting the plan is that just because a recipe is low in points, doesn’t mean it tastes that way. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between this lasagne and a standard one, except perhaps that it has more vegetables in it. The magazine recipe puts pancetta into the lasagne, which I could neither afford nor particularly see the point in, and with a few other tweaks, my recipe comes out at 2 points lower than theirs – only 8 pro points per serving. My friends didn’t seem to mind either (unless they were just being polite) – it was even good enough to serve as both breakfast and lunch the next day, apparently... Recipe at the end of the post. 

I also made some very non-WW-friendly chocolate cupcakes for my friend Laura’s birthday. I won’t post the recipe as they’re the ones from the Hummingbird Bakery Cake Days book and I didn’t change anything. If you have an afternoon/potentially a whole day to spare, I would recommend tackling the Sea-Salt Caramel Chocolate Layer Cake, which I made a few years ago. It’s ridiculously extravagant and very, very tasty.

C is for Cupcake

D is for dinosaur. On Sunday there were a few miniature hangovers around but we managed to make it into town to stand in the queue (!) for the Natural History Museum. Turned out everyone in the world wanted to see the dinosaurs that day. Did you know you could fit a Mini Cooper inside the heart of a blue whale?

Classic Lasagne Recipe after this link:

Monday, 12 August 2013

Chocolate bacon & other stories

London is turning me into a morning person. I spent a lot of time on the M25 last week (getting jealous of all the planes crawling overhead – nothing like driving past Heathrow twice a day to give you itchy feet) and that meant a lot of early mornings. My body has now taken it upon itself to wake me up at 7am, even at the weekend. I’m not sure how to feel about this, as I do love a good lie-in, but on Sunday I made the most of it and went for my run two hours earlier than planned. I went for a few runs last week and they ended up looking like this:

So it was nice to venture further afield on Sunday. I have to admit to some very geeky excitement at running in the same park as Miranda. Sunday’s run, my third of the week, was a bit of a relief, actually: after a week off running (moving house, working the weekends, etc etc) I was really shocked at how quickly you can lose fitness. Obviously it doesn’t disappear completely – but on my first run this week, I really struggled, and my normal 5-ish-k became a very red-faced 4-ish-k. My second run of the week was a little better (and on a side note, I think I have finally worked out what to eat before a morning run: a boiled egg and a banana seem to set me up much better than anything else I’ve tried) but it wasn’t until Sunday that I felt back to my normal self. I actually managed to get a 4 mile personal best, scraping in under 40 minutes thanks to a last-minute sprint that left me with a very jelly-legged cool-down walk all the way back to Acton. The early start meant I just about had enough time to make it to a Weight Watchers meeting, although I had to do my stretching in the shower (no, I wouldn’t recommend it, however good at multi-tasking you might be.) Cue lunatic driving up the North Circular and a tour of the church halls and community centres of Cricklewood (I need to find a meeting a little closer to home, I think!) Weigh-in done and dusted for the week, my friend Ashleigh arrived and we embarked on a two-day mini gastronomic tour of London. I’m supposedly the local now but she is an excellent tour guide and opened my eyes to the delights of Fortnum & Mason, Camden Market, and Whole Foods. I did manage to pitch in with one recommendation, stolen from the lovely Ellie who I first met in Paris (she just moved back there – cue horrible jealousy) and who blogs at Eat, Play, Live. In one of her recent posts she reviewed Flat Iron in Soho, far more eloquently than I could (so you should all go and read her post.) My own two-pence worth: eating green salad with a miniature meat-cleaver is not the easiest of tasks, but now I have tasted chips fried in beef dripping, there’s no going back. If you come and visit me, I warn you, I may drag you here. 

Other things I loved this weekend:

In case you didn’t get it from my mustard chicken post, I am a big fan of mustard. I have been known to eat it out of the jar. Not this jar, sadly.

Very classy deck chairs in Green Park.

The Overground: air conditioning, so quiet, £1.50 to get to Camden Road. Yes please.

I can’t quite believe I have never been to Camden Market before. My one and only experience of Camden was on a night out back in January – I have to say, things look a lot more hospitable when you’re not trying to find a taxi to take seven people from Chalk Farm to Chiswick at 3am. Ashleigh and I scoured the food market for the healthiest option: Sonita’s Kitchen absolutely came up trumps. Some places do it better than others, but all too often, I find that the “healthy option” either a) tastes of pretty much nothing, b) is actually not that healthy after all, or c) is both of the above. The curry we had for lunch tasted incredible, and looking at the ingredients, not even my sceptical eye could find anything that would make it that unhealthy. The curry (there was a choice of three vegetarian curries, as well as king prawn, lamb and chicken options) is cooked in a small amount of olive oil, and the acid test for me was that you could actually taste the freshness of the ingredients. It tasted like something I would make at home (except a lot better, obviously!) Meet my new best friend:

I couldn’t decide which two of the three veggie options to pick, so he hid the dahl underneath the chickpea curry and voilà, four different curries in one box and he under-charged us. Hero.

A food find like that can really make my day. Fuel for some more browsing (and our little pilgrimage to the Whole Foods in Piccadilly Circus.)

I went for a quick run round Acton Park this evening. I was pleasantly surprised that it’s open until 9pm over the summer. I keep being surprised by things like that, after a year of living in the suburbs. I have a bit of a “not-in-Kansas-anymore” feeling, things lighting up in unexpected technicolour. The park gives off the scent of summer – dry grass crushed under canvas. Close your eyes and you could be anywhere. Open them and the birds rush suddenly like grains of salt flung for luck, to catch the light on the underside of each wing. 

P.S. As for the chocolate bacon, this somewhat improbable claim was written up on a chalkboard outside a shop in Camden Lock. Ashleigh and I headed in to investigate, to be told they had sold out ... So we remain intrigued. I’ll keep you posted!