Tuesday 13 October 2015

Preview: Cambridge Gin Laboratory

In addition to my husband, children, and a really good steak, there are two other ways into my heart: gin and Labrador Retrievers. You know those Saint Bernard dogs in cartoons that rescue people stranded in mountains with a small barrel of spirits attached to their collars? If someone could send me a Labrador bearing a G&T, that would be awesome.

I was watching "Great British Menu" the other night and Rich Bainbridge (a Norwich-based chef) wanted to make a Victoria sponge cocktail to go with his dessert course. For this, he created a bespoke vanilla gin. The next thing we know, we're in Will and Lucy Lowe's house in Cambridge where they distill their own gin. (Side note: when people ask about the benefits of working from home, this is the sort of thing I have in mind.) Their Cambridge Distillery works with restaurants such as Alimentum and Morston Hall, businesses, and (if you're very lucky) individuals to create tailored gins. On a busy week, Will says, they can produce up to 60 bottles of gin. They are award-winning, world renowned distillers and I had no idea that this was happening a few miles from my house.

Lucy and Will are in the process of opening the Cambridge Gin Laboratory in central Cambridge, offering gin lovers a lesson in gin history, a behind the scenes look at how it is produced, and the opportunity to blend their own gin. There will be various experiences available, which you will be able to view and book on their site.

DSC_0978 DSC_0982

DSC_0971 Will is not only a Master Distiller, he is also studying to become a Master of Wine - a combination that is a rare breed. I asked him how wine tasting compares to gin tasting and he said that it all comes down to detecting flavours. "I even eat foods I don't like just to experience different flavours," he said. I learned more about gin in the few minutes I spoke to Will than I have in the many years I've been drinking it.

One of the gins they produce is a seasonal gin that changes annually depending on what's been growing in their garden or available to forage that particular year. It is, without wanting to sound horribly cliche, Cambridge in bottle. Each vintage's report is a story about what was happening in Cambridge that season. We had the pleasure of tasting three drinks yesterday evening at the Gin Lab: a Cambridge Dry gin and tonic, a Japanese Gin martini, and a summery Basil Smash. You're probably supposed delicately sip and savour it, but I took great mouthfuls and said things like "OHMYGOD THIS IS SO GOOD."


How do Labradors fit into all of this? I have an unapologetic, extremely biased love for Labs and Lucy and Will have a very lovely one called Darcy. She graces the labels and if you visit the distillery, you'll get to meet this gorgeous lady yourself. Darcy is key to Lucy and Will's foraging, as they find botanicals to use in their gin during their walks. Also, it's rather lovely to sip a remarkable gin and tonic while giving her ears a little scratch.

Gin seems to have evolved from your grandmother's tipple to a spirit we are starting to care much more about. My heart sinks a little when I walk into a pub and all they have is Gordon's and tonic out of a nozzle. It's not snobbery, it's the knowledge that there is something so much better out there. To know that there is exceptional gin being produced right here in Cambridge is cause for celebration indeed.


The Cambridge Gin Laboratory aims to open at the end of October. We were invited to visit before the opening, and other than the really amazing G&T, the only compensation I received for my visit was the extreme joy in having gin on a school night. This is not a sponsored post because I don't do that sort of nonsense.

Friday 5 June 2015

Penang soup

I have a cold, but just a little cold. Not enough to knock me right out, but enough to be really annoying. I can't cough with much vigour because my abdominal muscles (who knew I even had any?) still hurt from my Wednesday workout. I'm doing tiny little lady coughs that aren't actually accomplishing anything, and I sound like an idiot. It's a good thing that I'm working from home today.

My lovely friend Georgia posted a recipe yesterday for a Thai-inspired soup, and it sounded like the perfect remedy for a cold. One of the benefits of having a terrible short term memory is being pleasantly surprised by things I find in my cupboard that I forgot I bought - like a tub of Penang curry paste. I'd just made some chicken stock to help knock out Jack's cold, the weather turned cold and rainy today, so soup was the sensible lunchtime conclusion. I made this recipe up based on what I'd usually add to my standard Thai curry, with a little nod to laksa.

I only needed to feed me today, so I made the full batch of soup but didn't add the noodles, prawns, or lime juice to the pot. I added these to my bowl and ladled the hot stock on top, and put the rest of the soup in the fridge for another day. The paste I used was pretty hot, so not only are my sinuses clearer, I can see through time. (Thank you for that reference, Lisa Simpson.) If you've got leftover chicken or some other form of animal protein, by all means use that instead of prawns.

This isn't even remotely authentic. It's like a thinned out Thai curry on rice noodles instead of rice. I'm not really selling this, am I? It's good. Trust me.

Where are the prawns?

Oh look, there they are.

Thai Penang Curry Soup
(Serves 4)
50g/3 heaped tablespoons Penang curry paste
1 tbsp oil
400 ml/1 tin coconut milk
1 litre/4 cups of chicken or fish stock (unsalted, because you're adding fish sauce for seasoning)
4 "nests" of rice vermicelli (I used the Mama Noodles brand at 45g for each portion)
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp palm sugar (You can also use dark brown sugar or raw cane sugar)
200g/about 20 king prawns
Juice of 1 lime, or more to taste
Garnishes: bean sprouts, coriander/cilantro, spring onions/green onions, or whatever else strikes your fancy.

Fry the curry paste in the oil over medium heat for about 2-3 minutes. Add the coconut milk and stock, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 15 minutes or so. 

While the soup is simmering, add boiling water to the vermicelli and let stand according to package instructions. Mine only took three minutes, so you can do this near the end. Drain and set aside.

Add the fish sauce and palm sugar to the soup and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the prawns* and noodles, stir and heat the soup through for a minute or two. Squeeze the lime juice on top.

Ladle/pour/slop the soup into bowls and top with your garnishes. Say goodbye to your cold.

*If you're using raw prawns, throw them in at the end for about two minutes, and cook until they're thoroughly pink.

Per serving: 499 calories, 23g fat, 24g protein, 48g carbs.

Sunday 24 May 2015

sunday best at gog magog farm shop with guerilla kitchen: Eat Cambridge

I had neither the time nor calorie allowance to go to any of the Eat Cambridge events this year with one exception: Sunday Best at Gog Magog Farm Shop. I couldn't pass up the chance to have food cooked by one of my favourite chefs, and Sunday roast is one of the best things I've discovered since moving to England. It's also one of the trickiest meals to do for mass catering. Jay Scrimshaw not only managed to feed us all with a couple of green eggs and his truck, he gave us one of the best Sunday lunches I've ever had.

I first heard about Jay in 2009 when he and his wife Taffeta ran The Pheasant in Keyston, shortly before their appearance on Gordon Ramsay's "F Word" where they came in second place overall. I went with a couple of friends to check it out before it got hugely popular from their TV appearance, and we loved it. The Scrimshaws eventually moved on, focussing on pop-ups. I spoke to Taffeta about it for an article and had the chance to enjoy Jay's food again at two subsequent pop-ups. Jay now brings his food (specifically, his incredible steamed buns) to Cambridge via his food truck Myrtle and did a special one-off roast dinner as part of the Eat Cambridge food festival.

There are so many things I love about a Sunday roast: the gathering of family around the table after a week of speed eating and uncoordinated meal times, crispy roast potatoes, big hunks of meat, the excuse to have wine in the afternoon. Although I do love making a weekly roast for our family, it's very, very nice when someone else does the job for me every now and then.

Sunday Best

Sunday Best
We sat in tables of six (or in our case, four adults, two children, and one 5-year-old diva who demanded a scotch egg) in "The Shack", a covered outdoor area next to the cafe. We started with charred leeks with romesco sauce, a dish we devoured at one of Jay's pop-ups a little while ago. There's no photo because we hoovered it all up in minutes. It came with a massive salad with apple, hazelnut, and blue cheese dressing.

The main course was pure heaven. Meat. Lots and lots and lots of meat. Even better, meat with perfectly cooked side dishes: beetroot, apple, and fennel slaw (no filter needed), roast potato cooked in dripping, crispy asparagus, and Yorkshire puddings.

Sunday BestSunday Best

Sunday Best

But the meat. We need to talk about the meat. LOOK AT THIS MOTHER LOVIN' MEAT.

Sunday Best

Lamb shoulder and pork belly that had a beautifully smoky taste that you can only get with charcoal cooking. I ate way too much meat. I had to go have a little walk outside for a few minutes before I could contemplate dessert.

Sunday Best
The sun came out, the kids ran in the fields, and I finished my glass of Sauvignon Blanc listening to some chilled vintage (i.e. songs by people who were alive when I was a kid) tunes. The stress and chaos of a very hectic week melted away. If there weren't other people around who could see me, I probably would have had a little nap.

By the time the pavolva came out, I was actually ready and able to cram a bit more into my stomach. It was like a giant marshmallow slathered in whipped cream and fresh, flavoursome strawberries I've been waiting for since last summer. We all had a huge slice. Then Isla wanted more. And Grandad wanted more. And Jack wanted more. And Isla started to have a hissy fit so Grandad shared his piece with Isla.

Sunday Best

This was a wonderfully perfect Sunday and as an added bonus, we came home with a bag full of leftovers*. Thanks Jay and the lovely people at Gogs. I will happily let you take the Sunday roast shift for our family again anytime.

Full photo set here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lisadurbin/sets/72157653368766202

*(I may have stolen a bit of pork belly from the bag before putting it in the freezer, and I might be feeling a little bit like Mr. Creosote right now.)

Tuesday 19 May 2015

banana muffins

I wish I had an interesting story about this recipe, but I don't. Sorry about that. 

I had some very ripe bananas and Jack asked me to make him some muffins to take in his lunchbox. He's not allowed to bring in anything with nuts and I wanted to have some as well, so I went with this nut-free and wheat-free recipe: http://wellnessmama.com/2637/grain-free-banana-bread-muffins/

I didn't add any milk as the batter was runny enough and I used butter instead of coconut oil. And they were really good. The end.
Per muffin: 153 calories, 9g fat, 12g carbs, 6g protein.

Friday 1 May 2015

frittata 4 dayz

Paul and I can't say the word "fritatta" without sounding like the angry Scottish bloke in this advert:

Which happens quite a lot because I make it often. Also known as a Spanish tortilla (or maybe it's not exactly the same thing; I have no idea), it's like a crustless quiche that you start off on the stove top and finish off in the oven. You can put anything you want in it, but the one I made last week had grilled red peppers, potatoes, onion, cheese, and bacon inside. I cut mine into six pieces, and it was a very handy and delicious breakfast at the office that week. You can eat it hot, cold, or at room temperature. Isn't that lovely? What a great dish you are, fritatta.

Here's how I made mine, but I'm going to tell you again, put what you want inside. Just follow the instructions for cooking and egg quantities, but the rest is up to you. I want you to have a fritatta you can love.


Red Pepper and Potato Fritatta
(Serves 6)

Per serving: 331 calories, 20g fat, 18g carbs, 19g protein.

8 large (US extra large) eggs, at room temperature
100g (about a cup) of grated cheddar cheese
salt and pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
300g (about 3) potatoes, sliced thinly
1 onion, sliced thinly
4 streaky bacon rashers/slices of bacon, diced
Roasted red peppers that I got out of a jar, chopped. Don't judge.

Preheat the grill/broiler.

Heat a large, oven-proof frying pan with the olive oil over medium heat. Whisk the eggs and cheese with a bit of salt and pepper and set aside. 

Add the onions and potatoes to the frying pan, turn down the heat, cover, and simmer gently for about 15 minutes. Poke the potatoes with a knife to see if they're tender. If not, slap the lid back on and simmer for another 5 minutes or so. 

Take the lid off, turn the heat back up to medium-high, and add the diced bacon. Fry until crispy. Add the peppers until they're heated through. 

Pour in the egg mixture, stir it around a bit, and let it cook until you see the sides start to set. Put the frying pan under the grill/broiler until the fritatta goes lovely and brown on top (about 5 minutes.) 

Leave to cool for a couple of minutes before slicing into six pieces. Put it somewhere in the fridge where your husband can't see it because he will eat all of it before you get a chance to take it into the office for breakfast. 

Wednesday 22 April 2015

avocado and smoked salmon on toast

I want to create a series of recipes entitled "Diet Food That Doesn't Suck" but really, this is just food that happens to be pretty good for you. I'm terrible at dieting because I love to eat. A lot. The food I eat isn't bad for me; I just eat far too much of it. Add that to the fact that I hate exercise and you've got a happy but rotund Canadian on your hands.

I had my first personal training session on Monday and I still can't walk. "You'll get addicted to it!", friends say. To what, being in agony? You're all masochists, clearly. I hate gyms. I hate exercising in front of other people (which is why I took up jogging and I actually grew to love it even though I'm still really bad at it.) Why the hell am I not only going to a gym but exercising while being scrutinised by a much younger and incredibly buff guy? Because it's the only way I'll be motivated to actually get off my ass. I hate letting people down so I won't want to skip training sessions or go off track. That's the theory, anyway.

I'm attempting to eat normal, human-sized portions and keeping track of what I consume so I can get healthier. If I make something that I think is tasty and remember to take a photo of it, I'll post the recipe. This morning, I made a breakfast based on something a friend of mine had for brunch recently. It was lacking capers and possibly dill or some other green leafy thing, but it was fine. I used BFree bread because wheat and I don't get along all that well. Look, I've had food intolerances long before they became trendy so don't give me any lip. I was subjected to carob in the late 70s, I'll have you know.

Anyway, here's the recipe. It was filling and it didn't suck.

Avocado and Smoked Salmon on Toast
(Serves 1)

Per serving: 364 calories, 18g carbs, 19g fat, 27g protein.

1/2 avocado, sliced
100g smoked salmon
2 slices of whatever bread takes your fancy (a darker bread works well with this, like rye)
1/2 red onion, sliced thinly
8 thin slices of cucumber
About 1/4 cup or 50ml white wine vinegar
1 tsp sea salt
2 tsp capers
Dill or whatever leafy green herby thing that goes with salmon that you have

Put the onions and cucumbers in a small dish and cover with the vinegar and salt. Set aside for about 10 minutes but you can do this the night before as well. Drain.

Toast the bread then top with the salmon, avocado, onions, cucumber, capers, herbs, and a good grind of pepper. I also love smoked paprika on avocado and toast, so give that a go as well. If you have any onion leftover, keep it in the fridge covered a little bit of vinegar.

Saturday 28 March 2015

bagels for non-bread makers

After spending 11 years in Montreal, all other bagels are just not the same to me anymore. Maybe it's the wood ovens or genetics or Montreal tap water. I'm not sure what kind of voodoo Montreal bakers do to make their bagels taste like they do, but I haven't found another variety that I like as much and I can't replicate them at home.

The closest I've come is this recipe from Serious Eats: http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2011/03/how-to-make-homemade-bagels-a-la-jo-goldenberg-recipe.html It's a great one for those of us who should never be allowed to make bread because Bad Things happen. The kids love helping me make these, especially rolling them out.

Don't be put off by all the steps and the weird ass instruction to boil your bagels. They're not having a laugh, it really is the secret to making a great bagel. The only change I make to this recipe is the addition of 1tsp of baking soda to the boiling water. I have no idea what it does but I heard somewhere that this is what makes Montreal bagels so distinct; I throw it in there for good luck. Oh and I don't bother flipping them when baking and I bake for 20 minutes in total.

It does look labour intensive when you read through the recipe, but it really isn't. The process takes time because you have to let the dough rise, but the actual hands-on work is brief.

Here, let me break it down to help illustrate this:
-Chuck everything in a food processor. Blitz for about 1-2 minutes.
-Chuck dough in an oiled bowl with cling film on top. Stick it in the airing cupboard. Faff about on the Internet for an hour. 
-Divide dough into 10 pieces, make wriggly worms, drape around your hand and roll the ends on a counter so they seal. Go faff about on the Internet again for about 10 minutes.
-Boil the water/sugar/baking soda in a large pan, simmer bagels in batches for 1 minute (I usually do this in three batches, so it takes maybe 5 minutes.) The girls do the timing because small children get really excited about crap like that.
-Use child labour to brush the bagels with egg wash and to sprinkle seeds on top. Internet faffing optional at this stage.
-Bake for 20 minutes and play a few rounds of Candy Crush. Leave to cool. 

Slice and freeze if you've got some self control and won't devour all 10 bagels in the same day.

Friday 20 March 2015

ain't nobody got time for that: weekday recipe roundup

I'm boring myself with my own cooking. I'm limited in what I can make during the week because I'm either in the office or we do All The Things after school on my non-office days. Add this to the fact that two of my kids are relatively picky eaters (thank you Jack for being a human Hoover) and I am NEVER going to cook separate meals for everyone so don't even suggest it, okay?

So this means having to do the rather soul-destroying task of weekly meal planning. I can't just bung things together when I get home, or at least I can't make a regular habit of it. Weekends and Mondays are good because I have more time to cook. The rest of the week is like a food-based game show in which the prize is children that aren't screaming and hungry.

Here is a list of some recipes I've tried out lately that were not only incredibly delicious and fit into my schedule, but the kids actually loved them. Well, except the pasta one because Mia doesn't do pasta. What kid doesn't like pasta? Honestly.

  • Buttermilk roast chicken from the fabulous Smitten Kitchen: based on a Nigella recipe, this does something magical that makes it taste a million times better than plain roasted chicken pieces. You can marinate it up to two days and just whack it in the oven after work for about 35-40 minutes. I serve this with a ready made mash from Tesco that doesn't have any crap in it and just requires a quick trip in the microwave. 
  • Quinoa with things on top (here's a link for some great tips on cooking quinoa): okay look, don't get all arsey with me because I'm mentioning a super trendy food. This quinoa is good stuff if you cook it properly and it holds up very well for a day or two afterwards, unlike its clumpy wannabe twin couscous. Bring to the boil in stock, simmer 15 minutes, drain, put a lid on it and let it sit for another 15 minutes. Job's done. You can get grilled peppers and things you can stick on top with chicken or whatever else you've got. I toss in a little olive oil, lemon juice, and sometimes feta.
  • Slow cooker meatballs: looks labour intensive but isn't, and you can prepare the meatballs the day before. An incredibly rich sauce with flavourful meatballs that made enough to feed four of us (Mia wouldn't entertain the idea) with plenty of leftovers. So, so good.
  • Slow cooker chicken tortilla soup: don't be put off by all the strange and wonderful peppers needed for this soup. I get mine online from http://www.capsicana.co.uk/ or a Mexican online grocer - stock up and keep a bunch in the cupboard. Even Tesco is now stocking dried chipotles and poblanos these days. The most work needed for this one was the toppings because I lovingly organised them all into a lazy susan. The kids LOVED this soup. I'm tempted to add beans to it next time to bulk it out a bit. The soup was delicious and a great remedy to a weekend of overindulgence, but probably not filling enough for a normal meal (for adults) on its own. 
Just don't tell anyone that this week two of my kids had frozen chicken nuggets because I couldn't be bothered to figure out one meal that would make everyone happy.