Eating healthily at school

School food has improved no end since Jamie’s School Dinners. In my school you can’t even buy fizzy drinks or chocolate and there are no vending machines.

But I generally don’t eat in the school restaurant because when I do go in, I make poor food choices. I eat sandwiches rather than vegetables. I say yes when the lovely ladies ask me if I want extra roast potatoes. There are puddings with custard. And the nutritional requirements of hollow-legged, active, growing teenagers are different from those for overweight thirty-somethings.

The last few years, I can see from my weight graphs, I have lost weight in the autumn term, gained it over Christmas and then it peaks at the end of the summer when I get a bit of a grip again. My diet gets steadily worse as I get more tired, and when the lack of structure of the summer holidays arrives I am my own worse enemy.

But I do find I can lose weight at school if I am careful and sensible. This is how I do it.

Fruit

It has worked well for me to take in a week’s fruit at once and have a fruit bowl on my desk. There is something healthy to snack on right there and you can see how well you are doing – it’s a visible progress bar in front of you. Last year I took in a banana and an apple for most days, this year I think I will try and add something else as well, citrus fruit or kiwis maybe.

Another benefit is that I can rarely persuade myself to eat breakfast before I leave the house, and sometimes not until I’m well into my school day. But if I just have fruit at break time, that still counts as breakfast, right? Even if I’m on my nth cup of coffee?

And if you want to consider it as pedagogy, you could even make the point that you are modelling healthy eating to your students.

Graze boxes

These give me lots of interesting things in small portions. Even if you go mad and eat two or three punnets at once you aren’t going to break the calorie bank.

If you’ve never tried graze, you can get a free sample here.

Tinned soup

I went through a phase last summer of eating tinned soup for lunch every day. It’s definitely nicer than cup-a-soup, and reasonably healthy. Low calories for sure, and it sort of counts as part of your five a day. It is generally pretty heavy on salt and industrial food. Just as the three fruit a day tipped me over my daily recommended sugar intake on MyFitnessPal, a tin of soup gets you a long way towards your daily salt ration. But keeping a stock of tins of soup in your classroom cupboard for emergencies is definitely a helpful thing to do.

My PT wants me to be avoiding carbs as much as possible, and certainly not eating bread, potatoes or pasta. Even so, I am on the lookout for other long life products I can bulk buy and keep in the cupboard for the days when I can’t be bothered to make a packed lunch (or I leave it in the fridge at home). Oatcakes perhaps, the nice Carrs ones wrapped in portions?

Salad

I really ought to be eating salad for lunch every day. At first thought, that’s a very depressing thought, but there are plenty of tricks I have come up with to help that work a little better.

I mentally categorise vegetables into three groups. Ones I can eat by themselves (carrots, sweetcorn). Ones I don’t like but can eat if there are enough other things on my plate to take the taste away (broccoli, spinach). And the ones that make me feel sick regardless of how I try to swamp the taste (swede, sprouts, parsnips… it’s a long list.)

Fortunately most salad veg fits the first category. Most leaves are OK – but those salad pillows do not last very long and if you buy them at the start of the week they are looking pretty sad by the end of it. And once the pillow is opened, releasing all the putrefaction delaying gas, the contents deteriorate pretty fast. And you also need loads of it to count as a portion. Whole lettuces last longer but then you have less variety, and you have to faff about washing and spinning them.

The crunchy vegetables last longer in the fridge and are more interesting to eat. By and large you need less of them to count as a portion, and lots of them are sweet too. I like carrots, radishes, peppers, celery for starters so you can get a good salad going with that lot.

Salad dressing

The vegetables by themselves need a little something to get them going, and a salad dressing is a must. Once on a channel ferry, a prepacked French salad had a one-inch tall plastic bottle with oil and vinegar in it for you to shake and make your own dressing, and that basic idea made its way into my lunchbox. I’ve got a small glass jar for the dressing that I keep separate from the veg until lunchtime, then shake it up and pour it over.

As all good cooks should, I have a variety of oils and vinegars to choose from as well as plenty of other condiments and ingredients to add. It’s certainly true that most days there are more calories in my dressing than all the vegetables put together. But it’s not an insane amount.

A basic dressing is a tablespoon of oil (EVOO) and teaspoon of vinegar (balsamic, sherry, cider, home made red wine…). Always a good screw of salt and pepper.

And then to mix things up, some of the following: honey mustard – runny honey and wholegrain mustard with cider vinegar; just a good glug of sweet chilli sauce; a good glug of toasted sesame oil for an interesting flavour; fresh herbs like basil or tarragon.

Salad – something to look forward to

And as if a delicious dressing wasn’t enough I also like another ingredient. I don’t have to have something to take the taste away as I’m OK with most salad vegetables, but it’s still nice to have something to look forward to. A good slice of deli ham is a great start, or something sweet in the mix – grapes or raisins. Something crunchy like walnuts or seeds of some sort for texture. Anything from the world of cheese.

My #2 nemesis – cake in meetings

Who can spell ‘obesogenic’? (I just had to check!)

It’s lovely that people bring cakes and biscuits to meetings. I do it quite a lot myself. We’ve had some absolutely awesome ones and some of my colleagues are really talented bakers. Some of us buy in our cakes and that’s nice too. My problem is saying no. Or just eating one biscuit. I’m not at all equipped to resist temptation, especially after a busy day – and a lot of our meetings are after the children go home.

My #1 nemesis

My #1 nemesis on the healthy eating front is the feeling that “after the day I’ve had I deserve…” and the thing I think I deserve is a really terrible food choice. “Drive thru” at McDonalds or Starbucks over the road from school – and even the threat of meeting students there is not always enough to deter me. If I make it onto the motorway without buying something daft, there’s always the four corner shops I have to pass on the way home too. At this point in the day I’m often so hungry I really can’t be bothered to cook dinner either, so the temptation to stuff my face is very real.

And the result is plain to see on my weight graph. Which I’m not going to share. So here’s to 20kg of weight loss and no putting it back on again!

Dinner party

I had planned to tidy the house over the summer holidays and then host a dinner party at the end of the summer holiday to celebrate getting over the C.H.A.O.S. (can’t have anyone over syndrome). However, I had left it very late to start and the place was still a long way from presentable when plans were formed to have dere ole friends over for a spot of supper.

Once a friend described a colleague as someone who went a little too far in preparing for dinner parties because “she made her own chocolates.” If it were tempering chocolate and moulds and fillings, I think I would agree but a few simple ganache based truffles are easily achievable if you have a few days’ warning.

Here’s our menu:

Orange gin and tonic

The original recipe from an old Olive magazine: Shake a tea spoon of marmalade for each shot of gin with some bitters and serve with tonic. I added some of crème de pamplemousse rose from a previous trip for a little more zing and was trying Fevertree tonic for the first time. This tasted good!

Frittata 

Another tip from Olive is to make frittata in a cake tin with a cake liner rather than a frying pan. This helps us particularly as we do not have any large non-stick frying pan. Fry an onion, a pepper, a grated carrot and some chopped sundried tomatoes. Add some ham chunks – I had roasted a bacon joint the day before to give some nice meaty chunks. Put the vegetables and meat into a lined cake tin. Beat six eggs with a heaped teaspoon of baking powder, pour on and bake for 30 minutes at 180 deg c.

Sausages

I’m not so good at main courses, so any excuse to visit our local awesome butcher. Johnny provided us with some “cappuccino and chocolate” sausages and some “basil and tomato” ones. Popped in the oven as the starters went out, steamed some carrots and beans and boiled some new potatoes P grew in the garden. Served in warmed bowls for people to help themselves with gravy made with fried onions and mushrooms with red wine.

Pear 3 ways

Pear sorbet – blitz two tins of pears in syrup with the juice from one lemon and dump in the ice cream maker.

Poached pears – two large glasses of white wine, one of water, 300g sugar and a bunch of aromatics – star anise, lemongrass, ginger chunks, cloves, cardamom pods. Boil lightly until peeled pears are soft enough to push a toothpick into.

Pear jelly – set a pint of the poaching liquid with gelatin and separate into serving bowls, chill.

Reduce the remaining poaching liquid to a syrup to serve.

Vanilla mascarpone – one of the most delicious things I have ever made – a small tub of mascarpone beaten with two tablespoons of icing sugar, the scrapings from the inside of a vanilla pod and a few drops of vanilla extract.

Truffles

Two different ganaches fridged overnight and rolled into balls. Peanut butter ganache from Dan Lepard’s cake – half quantities – 120 gr dark chocolate, large spoon peanut butter, splash of sugar, 100mls double cream, melted very slowly and stirred together. Roll the truffles in either cocoa or chopped peanuts. For contrast, an Earl Grey white chocolate – scald 100mls double cream with some Earl Grey teabags, strain and melt 120 gr white chocolate into it. Roll in icing sugar.

Coffee

The latest beans from my monthly coffee club.

The dessert and starter were made well in advance, the main just cooked while we were eating.

Maybe now the house is edging tidier we might be able to do this more often.  I had a slightly crazy idea of doing two dinner parties two nights in a row with essentially the same meal twice running – edging from cooking to catering. The frittata would do 12. The poached pears could be doubled without too much hassle. Roasting 24 rather than 12 sausages makes no difference, but you would have to peel a few more carrots.  The real squeeze though would be having to do all the washing up overnight so you could start again the following night.

Eurovision hors d’oeuvres

We’re taking finger food to a Eurovision party this year, so I have made devilled eggs and puff-pastry pack two ways.

Eurovision hors d'oeuvres

Devilled egg recipe here. Glut of teeny eggs from newly laying small hens, so used them up in this. Quite faffy, hard to transport and not the sort of fiddly work my clumsy fingers are any good at. I should probably stop even trying anything with piping in it.

Then a block of all butter puff pastry is divided – this time I did 1/3rd tartlets 2/3rds croissants.

Preheat oven to 200 deg C

Roll the pastry, cut rounds. Halve cherry tomatoes and optionally pre-roast them a little in the preheating oven. Stick each tomato half to a pastry round with tomato purée and top with a sprinkling of grated parmesan. Bake until crispy, about 10 minutes.

Eurovision hors d'oeuvres

Roll the remaining pastry and cut into triangles, either from a large circle of rolled pastry, or less wastefully from rectangles. You are looking for very tall isosceles triangles. Place a small piece of cheese (camembert, goats, etc) and half a spoon of interesting chutney (I’m using something from the Garlic Farm) on the wider part and roll them up to form a croissant. Brush with beaten egg and bake for 10-15 minutes until golden.

Eurovision hors d'oeuvres

Serve with Meg Pickard’s Eurovision Bingo cards [PDF] .

Pudding club: marshmallow cheesecake

Quite often with recipes as I flick through Olive magazine or follow links on the internet, it’s a new technique that piques my interest. This was one of those. It starts with melting marshmallows in milk and using the gelatin from there as a setting agent.

I used hobnobs for my cheesecake. The idea that a biscuit base doesn’t have to be digestive comes from Nigella’s Grasshopper Pie where she uses bourbon biscuits. I’ve just been to find that recipe again and was amazed to find that uses the same marshmallow technique!

The cheesecake I made was not massively successful – it looked bad because the cream cheese wasn’t beaten enough, the frozen fruit mix was not nice, and the fruit juice soaked into the base and meant that the whole pie did not slice properly but fell apart. Next time I think I would either make a rough jam from the fruit or try blitzing the frozen fruit to a purée and then blitz it through the cheesecake mix to make a sort of smoothie cheesecake.

Anyway, here’s the recipe I was trying to make:

Serves 10

300g marshmallows
200 mls milk
200g biscuits
50g butter
500g cream cheese
150 mls

Line a 23cm tin. Make a biscuit base from 200grams biscuit and 50grams butter.

Melt 300grams of marshmallows in 200mls of milk stirring regularly over a very low heat. Once the marshmallows have fully melted, cool the mix. Mine separated a little at this point.

Melting marshmallows in milk as a first step to a cheesecake

Put most of a bag of defrosted frozen fruit on your biscuit base, reserving some fruit and juice to make a coulis to serve.

Frozen berries on hobnob biscuit base

My original recipe now calls for you to beat 500 grams of cream cheese with a teaspoon of vanilla essence, and whip 150mls of cream. Because that was two separate bowls, I decided not to let the Kenwood do the whipping, which was probably a mistake. Whilst I can whip 150 mls of cream by hand, it does make a bit of a mess of the kitchen. The texture of the final cheesecake shows clearly that the cheese wasn’t beaten enough to fully incorporate with the marshmallow mix.

Adding cream cheese to the cooled, rubbery, separated marshmallow mix

Some recipes get you to microwave the cream cheese a bit to check it properly integrates.

Because of the sugar in the biscuit base and the marshmallows, there’s no need for any more in the fruit.

Final assembly. Didn't beat cheese enough so slightly unfortunate texture / appearance

Cold brew, butter infused coffee

Last night as I was inputting my food data into Myfitnesspal my eye was drawn by a forum post about butter coffee.

I like butter, I thought, I like coffee, maybe this is for me.

From the details, it turns out you put a good wodge of unsalted, grass-fed butter in a hot black coffee and run it through the blender to emulsify it and stop getting a thick layer of melted butter on top of normal coffee.

The idea is apparently this is a low-carb diet friendly breakfast that helps you feel full for most of the day. It is mainly hawked in the US by someone promoting “bulletproof coffee” and most of the other links about it seem to link back to him.

Not even sure whether butter in the UK is “grass fed” or not and only had salted butter in the fridge, so didn’t make a rush on this idea. I also have a few concerns about putting butter in the blender as that looks much harder to clean out than the smoothies it usually gets used for.

However, whilst reading around on butter coffee I also hit on a few links for cold brew coffee, and that looked both more promising and possible to make with everything I already had in the house at 10pm.

There were lots of complicated things you could use – including this beautiful but expensive and house-filling lab kit and Cory Doctorow’s combo of bucket and tights – but reading a bit through the comments, the easiest thing to do was put the coffee in the camping cafetière in the fridge overnight. It took a while to find a sensible amount of metric quantities – the American sites mostly have quarts and pounds – but in the end I put 75g of coffee with 500mls of water and left it going.

This morning after a bit of a stir, so the grounds didn’t get caught on the mesh, I pushed the plunger and poured, then diluted the mix with hot water for my first three cups of coffee today. The first one slightly less than 1:1, the next one slightly more, the third even more.

The flavour – well, nothing particularly special. I am getting a bit more of a caffeine rush, eventually.

All in all, the faff, the extra use of coffee, which I already spend too much money on, and the mess of using a French press instead of a filter machine, mean this isn’t something I’m in a hurry to repeat.

Perhaps the butter next week…

Two weeks’ food

Meal plans in retrospect, once they become meal histories.

There’s been some casual plans and some moving around and slightly more takeaway than planned.

Last week

Sunday & Monday – spag bol

Tuesday – sausages from the freezer, with frozen corn on the cob and fresh steamed carrots that barely cooked at all. It turns out frozen corn is too heavy for the pan top steamer. We have several packs of sausages in the freezer, I discovered, because of BOGOFs in the past. This is served with gravy made with Bisto poured over fried onions, and an apple and a bunch of mushrooms that have been pushed through a grater. When the first cook has happened, pour in a glass of red wine and reduce before finally adding in the Bisto.

Wednesday – leftover sausage pasta

Thursday was Glamorgan burgers. I thought after two days of sausage related food, we needed to shape the traditional Welsh vegetarian dish slightly differently.

Thursday was before a GP appointment for my annual drug review. I’ve been on lansoprazole since 1995, back when I was 75kg, and this year, apparently, there’s been new research to show that people on proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) need to be careful of food hygiene, as, with less stomach acid we are more susceptible to “bowel infections” (is that food poisoning?) and also we need to take care about bone density. This means eating a lot of calcium and taking some sort of explosive exercise – not just walking, but that’s good, but also something that involves jumping. In effect, my GP told me to eat more cheese. (Whilst also being careful not to take on too many calories.)

Friday we had takeaway, phoning Dominos.

Saturday I don’t remember and Sunday I made soup from the veg box – potatoes, leeks, carrots, Jerusalem artichokes. That went for lunches too. Mostly this term I’ve been having tinned soup for lunch as a low calorie, low carb plan that can sit in the cupboard for weeks until I need it.

Monday we made this baked potato and leek dish again – it’s become a firm favourite since we first made it.

Tuesday – Greek salad. More cheese! But some rather nasty bullet hard unseasonal Spanish tomatoes.

Wednesday – came home from the gym via the chippy.

Thursday – I don’t remember, but Friday I made a rather nice chicken tikka with a tiny bit of rice and bulked out with some extra veg – onions, mushrooms and peppers.

Pudding club: sticky toffee pudding

I last made this some years ago, when Simon Hopkinson’s cookery programme was on TV. But it seems I didn’t write about it at the time, so here’s a quick post to put things right.

I made it exactly as per this BBC recipe.

It’s a truly delicious recipe – as you’d expect for something that includes over a pint of cream and most of a block of butter, along with a variety of interesting types of sugar, one of which I’d never used till the recipe sent me hunting for it.

The recipe says “serves 4″ but even someone as sceptical of serving sizes as I am would think this recipe comfortably feeds 6.

Sticky toffee pudding for tomorrow's pudding club. Two toffee sauces for assembly.

The other reason this one sticks in the mind is that two years ago when I made it and photographed it and put it on Flickr, some wazzocky company took me to task for using the phrase “pudding club” in the description because they thought they owned it. Fools!