All Posts Filed in ‘Cooking / Food

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So I Guess I’m A Vegetarian Then

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I’ve always been a classic omnivore with a leaning towards chocolate. That means I’d eat anything from a green salad to black pudding to a juicy steak to a Linda McCartney pie to any chocolate bar ever made. Although given the choice I’d definitely pick the chocolate.

I’ve also never been under any illusion that the neatly packaged meat I buy in a butchers or a supermarket was once a living, breathing, thinking creature and it was killed so that I could eat it. I’m rather fond of fly fishing so have killed, gutted, cooked and eaten many a fish over the years. The same with various other animals. So I’ve always been keenly aware of the industry that is breeding sentient animals purely to slaughter them and feed us. That bothered me, particularly the poor treatment of the animals, so my wife and I made sure we only ate free range egg (and real free range, not simply chickens that live in a larger cage all their life, ones that get to roam around outside) and bought only locally sourced meat that we could see in the fields around where we live.

Then around 6 months ago my wife suggested when we ate all the meat in our freezer we should try going vegetarian. I said “let’s do it” and so it began. Here’s what I expected to happen:

  • I would have a bad stomach for a while as my body got used to no longer eating meat
  • I would struggle with eating boring salads all the time – I loathe broccoli for example
  • When dining out I would have to get used to eating bland nut roasts as the only vegetarian option
  • I’d miss eating fish (having grown up on the east coast of Scotland I’ve always loved various types of fish and shellfish)
  • As I play football and do weight training the lack of amino acids and protein would make me feel weaker over time and my fitness levels would drop off
  • I would very much miss bacon and the smell of it would ultimately tempt me back to eating meat again

However none of the above have turned out to be the true. While my wife gave up after a couple of weeks (without going into details, it did not agree with her digestive system) I’ve found going vegetarian a complete nonevent. In fact I feel better than I’ve ever felt, fitter than before and while I now eat more than I did previously, I think more about what I do eat and so pick healthier options. Oh, and I still eat chocolate.

Some Mushrooms

What I have been surprised by are the following:

  • Virtually everyone I inform I’m a vegetarian assume I still eat fish. News flash: FISH IS MEAT TOO!
  • A good percentage of my friends feel the need to try and tempt me back to eating meat as though it’s some sort of club to which I really should belong – the primary argument is that “meat tastes great”, but most people have the palate sophistication of a burger-eating teenager so are no experts on taste!
  • I don’t miss eating meat at all and haven’t had a single craving to eat any. Given that I spent 39 years eating the stuff I expected to struggle giving it up. If I had to give up chocolate I know for a fact I’d be crying myself to sleep at night!
  • As soon as you stop thinking “ok, let’s make this meal but replace the meat with some veg” and start thinking “let’s make a delicious meal” it turns out there are loads of tasty options out there
  • I actually feel a sense of relief that I’m no longer a part of the meat industry and no animal is slaughtered so that I might eat it

It’s that last point that’s surprised me the most. By not eating meat I’ve had a chance to reflect on why we humans eat meat. Why we’ve turned the production of meat into an industrial process hidden away from public view to the point where a great number of people don’t associate a chicken breast in a supermarket with a chicken walking around a field. It’s a dirty secret we don’t seem to want to acknowledge and I was no different.

I think it rather sad that a technologically advanced species with its sights set on interplanetary travel still has as its primary food source living creatures that are bred, grown and killed. Take bacon. It’s no secret that I love my dog and dogs are intelligent, social creatures capable of recognising human emotions and I would never consider eating one. Yet pigs are as intelligent and social as dogs – arguably more so – but they’re food for a group of even more intelligent animals (us). That’s not tackling the fact that if population growth continues as it’s projected to do then farming animals is completely unsustainable. Not that us humans think further than 5-10 years in the future.

In the unlikely event that an alien species was to cross the chasm of space and visit us on Earth I would be very disappointed if their spaceship had a compartment containing animals they used as food for their vast journey. Surely they’d have left that behind aeons ago.

But one thing that hasn’t happened is developing a burning desire to stop other people eating meat. Heck, you can eat what you like! But me? I don’t see any reason to go back. So I guess that makes me a vegetarian. And I feel a lot better for it on many levels. Much to my surprise.

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My Birthday Baking Photo Casebook

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Today is my birthday – happy birthday to me! As has become tradition I’ve put together a photo casebook to announce the availability of baked goods to my lucky colleagues and this year was able to combine my three main passions:

  1. My dog Billy.
  2. My love of baking.
  3. My fondness for making myself look like even more of an idiot than I already am.

My Birthday Cakes Photo Casebook

Don’t worry, no Lhasa Apsos were harmed in the making of this photo casebook. And before you ask, it was icing sugar, definitely not cocaine!

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Pictures From A Few Weeks In London

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I’ve spent the past month or so trotting back and forth to London and have been rather enjoying myself. Since I take photos everywhere I go I’ve been taking lots of pictures. However looking at them, they’re not exactly what your average London visitor photographs. No sights, no London Eye, no House of Parliament. No, they seem mostly of food. Not sure what that says about me, but here’s a random assortment of pictures from London! I’m sure I’ll add more to this album over the coming weeks.

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Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals

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I was having a look through some recent photos taken on my phone and noticed a pattern. Just recently we’ve been cooking a lot of meals from the latest Jamie Oliver book ‘Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals‘ (almost all of it delicious) and I’ve gotten into the habit of photographing our creations.

The idea is you can cook a 3 course meal in just 30 minutes. You see him do it on TV but the reality, as it turns out, is a little bit trickier. You need a good sized kitchen, everything laid out in advance and you don’t tidy up as you go. But with practise it can be done. Anyway, enjoy!

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The Very Serious Pursuit Of A Cup Of Coffee

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If you know me you’ll know I love coffee. If you know me and don’t realise how much I love coffee then the next time you bump into me ask and I’ll be happy to bore you for hours about it. If you don’t know me then take it from me – I love coffee.

Not just any old coffee mind. I can just about tolerate Starbucks coffee (aside: if you think Starbucks coffee is good coffee then let me assure you it’s the junk food of the coffee world – it’s ok but not a patch on the good stuff), I don’t drink instant coffee because it’s all universally terrible and if I find a place that makes great coffee – such as Bean Loved in Skipton – I stick with it.

My Trusty Gaggia Classic Coffee MachineSo a few years ago we bought a Gaggia Classic coffee machine. It’s one of those ones where you get some freshly ground coffee, put it in a holder, twist it in place, hit a button to run the hot water through into a cup, put some milk in a jug, flick a switch to heat the machine up more so it can generate steam, put the jug under a pipe, fire some steam through it until it runs out of puff, wait, then run some more through until the milk’s up to temperature, then pour into the mug and job done – you have a latte. As you’ll gather it was a time consuming process, you could only make 2 cups at a time, but it made a hell of a good cup of coffee (once I figured out how to get the best out of it).

A few years and many cups of coffee later and the amount of effort it took to make a cup of coffee was starting to take its toll. If we had friends round and I made a coffee for everyone it would take an age (2 at a time you see). Sometimes I’d screw up the milk frothing or overfill the coffee loader and blast ground coffee all over the kitchen. But most importantly I’m not a morning person and when I get up bleary eyed and grouchy I find a delicious fresh latte is the only thing to bring me to the land of the living. However as I spend every second I can in bed, the last thing I want to do is have to get up 10 minutes earlier just to make a cup of coffee. Things had to change.

A couple of years back a good friend of mine (who likes coffee even more than I do) decided to buy a fully automatic Jura coffee machine. If you take a look at their range you’ll see that they are very expensive. At the time I thought that while I’d love to have one, I just couldn’t justify spending what would buy two round the world airline tickets and only made a hot beverage. However I do feel very rough and get very grumpy in the morning so I started, foolishly, by asking my friend if he thought his coffee machine was worth it. Turns out it’s a brilliant piece of kit that makes the perfect cup of coffee every time, is very well engineered and can easily handle making the copious amounts of coffee he drinks.

I then resorted to the web and found the Seattle Coffee Gear channel on YouTube where I watched loads of reviews and demonstrations of many different machines. I wanted a fully automatic one that ground the coffee, heated up the milk, and basically did it all for you at the touch of a button. Oh, and preferably one that wasn’t expensive. Turns out that there is no such coffee machine and you get what you pay for. And that the Jura ones are very highly recommended.

Normally my wife would be the voice of reason and talk me out of such an expensive appliance purchase, but you see if anything she’s more of a coffee addict than I am so it was like asking a car salesman if I should buy a new car. Soon after we found ourselves in Peter Maturi in Leeds (the only place around that stocks such hideously expensive coffee machines) trying out the various Jura machines (we needed to see if the top of the range one really was that much better than the bottom) and several cups of coffee later walked out with a shiny new Jura Impressa J9 machine.

My Jura Coffee Machine

This was a couple of months ago so we’ve had a good time to see if it really is worth the money and if I’ve been able to make myself a cup every day. The bottom line is yes and yes! So to make a perfect latte you get a milk bottle out of the fridge, run a tube from the machine into the milk, put a cup under the nozzle and press a button. Walk away for a minute, come back and you’ve got the perfect latte ready to drink. My wife prefers stronger cappuccino’s – no problem! You can program each button to your exact tastes and job done. Switch it off and walk away while it cleans itself out. Fantastic!

It does seem a bit more demanding though as it tells you when to put more water in, when to empty the drip tray, when to put more coffee beans in, when to give it a deep clean (you just put a tablet in and press a button though) and when to replace the filter (no limescale here). However it doesn’t do it very frequently and is a small price to pay for one-touch operation. The only problem is that it’s so easy to make a great cup of coffee that you end up drinking more than you used to. Still, it keeps our local coffee bean shop in business and I’m all for supporting the local economy!

So next time you’re round my way, drop by and I won’t grimace when you ask for a cup of coffee – it’s only the press of a button away!

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The Cheesecake Comes Full Circle

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When my brother and I were youngsters my parents would often organise dinner parties. My memories of these dinner parties start with my mother cooking lots of lovely looking food, which we weren’t allowed to touch. As the time people were to arrive neared my brother and I would be lectured on how we were to not make any noise while we were upstairs and to leave them alone – and absolutely not to fight. We could stay downstairs to say hello but then we were off to bed! My mother would, for reasons we couldn’t understand, get more and more tense as the clock ticked closer to arrival time (not helped by my brother and I fighting of course). She’d be making sure the food was going to be ready, would get changed into smart clothes and ensure that the house was spotlessly tidy and all our toys were away. I don’t remember my father having much involvement with proceedings at this point, but it was another era where women generally ran the kitchen and men generally went out to work, so that may be why. Or perhaps he was sensible enough to go down to the pub to avoid my mother’s fretting.

Anyway, my mother would often make a special cheesecake for these dinner parties. The cheesecake was special for two reasons. One: she would only ever make this cheesecake for dinner parties and not for us to eat at normal times. And two: it was absolutely, positively, magnificently delicious. I mean unlike any store-bought cheesecake you could ever have – it was heavenly. These two factors tended to conspire against my brother and I since by definition the cheesecake would be eaten by those attending the dinner party – and that meant no leftovers for us to eat the following day. So we’d beg her to please, please, please make sure some was left for us and if not could she please, please, please make one for us next weekend?! We promise not to fight and to tidy our rooms! Being the wonderful parents that they were there most often were leftovers and we’d eat every last drop of the cheesecake and then crave more.

So fast forward 20 years (actually it’s more than that – but 20 years sounds better than the truth) to last Saturday. I’m attending a dinner party with my other half and in this particular case one couple is making the starter, one the main course and another – that would be us – the dessert. There’s nothing for it, I’m going to make a cheesecake! Now it’s a proud Conners tradition (that I made up) that only a Mrs Conners can make my mother’s cheesecake, and since I’m Mr Conners (to you), I thought I’d make a white chocolate cheesecake instead – a recipe from a friend of mine who has a sweeter tooth than I – knowing from making it in the past that it was delicious. I don’t actually like white chocolate but love this particular white chocolate cheesecake – which says it all. Except of course I’d lost the recipe and my friend lives in New Zealand and the only other person who has it isn’t around!

In an ironic twist I had a document called ‘Torrie’s White Chocolate Cheesecake’ that was in fact my mother’s cheesecake recipe mis-titled! Anyway, I had a look through several cook books for a similar white chocolate cheesecake recipe and finally found one that was more elaborate, but seemed to fit the bill. So cut to me on Saturday morning at 1am taking the cheesecake out of the oven (they take quite a while to make) and worrying if it was going to set, was going to taste nice, how I was going to decorate it and so forth, hearing my mother’s voice in my head laughing “see John, it’s not as easy as it looks, and you’re only making the dessert!”.

I decorated it with some white and milk chocolate and finished it off with some raspberries from the garden:

My Cheesecake

And you know what? It tasted bloody delicious! And even better, there were leftovers for the next couple of days which I happily polished off. 🙂

I always used to think dinner parties were formal affairs, somewhat posh and a bit pretentious. But they’re not. When you’re young you meet out at a pub, maybe get a burger or kebab if you’re hungry. As you get older your taste improves and you dine out at a restaurant. Then kids come along and you can’t get out as much (babysitters and what not) so instead meet up at friends houses for dinner – and voila, you have a dinner party. So while we were out on Saturday night at our friends I couldn’t help think of their young daughter upstairs and remember that being my brother and I. Sitting, hoping there would be some cheesecake left over in the morning. And there I was downstairs eating exactly as my parents would have all those years ago (albeit dressed a lot more casually). And so the circle of life – and cheesecake – is complete!

Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, when we’ve made my mother’s cheesecake since it still does taste just as good as I remember. Although it’s never quite the same without her telling me I’m not allowed any of it!

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Dinner At Gordon Ramsay’s Maze Restaurant In London

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Pain is something that’s very difficult to describe. Many years ago I got a filling and decided to have it done without anaesthetic. My thinking was that the pain of a dentist drilling into my teeth would remind me to brush my teeth so I wouldn’t need another one (plus it wasn’t a deep filling so I was assured it wouldn’t be too bad). It was, perhaps predictably, very painful. I remember realising at the time why torturers liked drilling holes in teeth as the pain was excruciating and there was no escape from it. But trying to describe that pain – what it felt like – to someone else proved particularly difficult. No amount of description could really do justice to the sound and sensation of the drilling and the electric shock-like shooting pains that you just couldn’t prepare yourself for.

And it’s exactly the same with the other end of the spectrum describing intense pleasure. Like, for example, eating an amazing meal.

This weekend to celebrate my birthday, my brother’s birthday and our anniversary, my good lady, brother and I went to Gordon Ramsay’s Maze Restaurant in Grosvenor Square, London (England) for dinner. We’d given my brother a voucher for Christmas to go for a meal there and he reported afterwards that the whole experience was superb and the food was sublime so it was time to find out for ourselves if that was the case.

The first thing to note is that while the restaurant may bear Gordon Ramsay’s name, the executive chef is Jason Atherton so really the menu is designed, selected and created by him. Anybody who follows the world of chefs knows that Jason (a Michelin star chef) is straight out of the top drawer, and the fact that he’s a Yorkshireman makes him even better since that’s where I live!

Anyway, the restaurant itself was beautifully decorated, a real quality look without feeling overly posh (i.e. I didn’t feel completely out of place!). The service was probably the best I’ve ever experienced. Having been a waiter myself during my student days I can appreciate a slick operation when I see it and at the Maze they were like a well oiled machine. You never even thought about topping up your glass as it was perpetually filled, the food seemed to appear and disappear, we never felt like we were being hurried out at the end and there was none of this spending 15 minutes trying to attract someone’s attention to pay the bill!

And so to the food. This is where it gets tricky to articulate. We all went for the set 7 course meal where you had a choice of a couple of options on 3 of the courses. Each course was small, beautifully presented (like pieces of art on a plate), the ingredients were all top quality and the flavours were out of this world! Each course seemed to complement the previous one and we kept marvelling at how ingredients were put together in unexpected ways to create a taste sensation. Heck, one of the courses had mini shepherd’s pie and I’ve never tasted one like that in my life!

We quickly lost count of how many courses we’d had and how many were left. It was like eating the most amazing tapas one dish at a time and soon enough we got to the dessert (which I really should have taken a picture of) and our culinary adventure was over. As is always the case with tapas-style food I felt I could have eaten more but when I stood up later I realised I’d actually had enough.

Overall the experience was fantastic. The ambiance, the service and the wine were all tip top. But the food was indescribably good. It wasn’t like eating a meal, it was more like being injected with a cocktail of pure class A drugs. No wait, that’s a terrible analogy! Let me try that again… It wasn’t like eating a meal, it was like… Eh… You see, it’s not easy to describe what it was like, nothing I could say would do it proper justice. Let’s just stick with a single word – divine. If you find yourself tempted to go to one of Ramsay’s restaurants but think “that’s a lot of money”, I can assure you it was worth every penny!

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Our First Proper Harvest

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In the continuing saga of us growing our own veg we’ve hit a major milestone. While we’ve been eating more lettuce and other greenery than you can shake a stick at (we’ve had to give some to our neighbours such is the amount we’ve grown) we’ve been really looking forward to our ‘proper’ veg being ready. I’m thinking traditional stuff like carrots, beetroot, onions and of course potatoes.

We’d been growing potatoes in bags – the sort you add more soil to when the potato leaves have found their way to the surface, bury them and let them break through again and so on until the bag is full. We knew that you’re supposed to wait until they flower before harvesting but ours hadn’t and the first couple of bags we planted were starting to go yellow as if they’d been hit with blight. Turns out that in fact this also means they’re ready for picking so we tipped the first bag out to see what we got – and personally I’m pretty impressed!

To a farmer growing potatoes is as trivial as breathing in and out, but since I’d never done it before it felt like a real novelty. We went with anya potatoes which are small, thin and tasty. We planted two in each bag starting back in March and that was long enough to wait! Anyway, have a look at the photos below to see what we did and ended up with:

This plant growing is definitely a learning experience and there are lessons we’ll be applying next year such as thinning the carrots and beetroots out more, what to plant from seed and what to grow indoors first and many other things. It’s been fun so far and it just makes me want to buy a house with a huge garden so I can fit poly tunnels and grow grow grow! I think I’ll need that lottery win first though…

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The Best Cafe In Skipton

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I’m very particular about coffee. I don’t drink instant coffee because it tastes terrible. I’ll drink Starbucks coffee when I don’t have a choice as the coffee is OK (in my experience about 1 in 3 cups I buy from Starbucks has had the coffee burnt by the barista). If I’m out for a meal at a pub or restaurant (even expensive ones) I’ll always turn down the offer of coffee after dessert as I know it’ll always be average at best. I have my own espresso machine, only buy quality coffee that’s ground in front of my eyes and keep the coffee in a plastic container in the fridge to maintain optimal freshness. As I say, I’m very particular about coffee.

I’ve gone to many a cafe over the years and my absolute favourite has to be Bean Loved in Skipton. It’s a family run cafe that is exactly how I imagine Starbucks was when it started (before it became hugely successful, global and consistently mediocre worldwide).

For me a good cafe requires either good food or good coffee. Bean Loved has both. They have a selection of paninis which (unlike Starbucks paninis) are varied in terms of ingredients and always delicious (the minted lamb one is my current favourite). I should probably write a separate article some time about my obsession with muffins and my pursuit of the perfect muffin, but let’s just say the the blueberry cheescake muffin Bean Loved sell is right up there (it combines the classic blueberry muffin format with cheesecake mix in liquid state – delicious)! And the coffee is excellent, and looks as good as it tastes:

Two Lattes And A Blueberry Cheescake Muffin

What I particularly like is the attention to detail. If you order a take-away coffee they do this pretty swirly pattern on the top – even though it has a lid on it! I’ve never had a burnt cup yet and I can see as the coffee’s being prepared that every bit of care and attention is taken (since I have my own machine I know how to get the best out of it and they certainly do).

The cafe itself has ample seating, some sofas, some wooden chairs, nothing uniform – which I like. The staff are very friendly and helpful and I can feel the real enthusiasm that comes from people who actually care about what they do (something you don’t get in certain global corporations I could mention).

So if your find yourself in Skipton and fancy a coffee then take a wander along Otley street, just off the high street (next to the pedestrian crossing) and go visit Bean Loved:

Bean Loved From The Outside

You won’t be disappointed! Oh and before you ask: no, I am in no way affiliated with Bean Loved other than being a happy customer. 🙂

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They’re Much Sweeter When You Grow Your Own

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We decided to take some of Jamie Oliver’s advice and grow our own strawberries in hanging baskets this year.

We have (or rather my good lady has) been taking good care of them as they’ve grown from little shoots. We kept looking out for little green strawberries to appear and when they did we were counting the days until we could eat them! Unfortunately the local bird population had other ideas so we netted them up after one particularly juicy strawberry disappeared without a trace one day (and my good lady swears she didn’t eat it).

More and more red strawberries looked almost ready for eating and then last night we decided enough was enough – it was time to harvest! As the title suggests, they really do taste sweeter when you grow your own. We’ve bought a few boxes of strawberries lately but they didn’t taste half as nice as the ones we picked – they were delicious!

Of course my good lady’s creative talents with food presentation made them taste even better:

So if you’ve got hanging baskets filled with boring pansies or some other tedious flowers then why not throw them in the bin and plant something you can later eat? That’s my kind of gardening! And if you don’t like strawberries then not to worry, invite me round your house and I’ll eat them for you! 🙂