Sunday, 5 March 2017

A Carnivore's Veganuary Attempt

If you're a regular reader of my blog, I'm sure you'll know by now that I'm a pretty committed carnivore. I always like to eat ethically, and try to source my meat as locally as I can. However, I've still found myself buying New Zealand lamb and multi-packs of chicken breasts from the supermarket out of convenience, even if I disagree with it.

So,  with January being the month of ridiculous diets and abstinence from all things fun, I thought I'd use this excuse to try out being a vegan for a month. I ate as much as possible of the leftover Christmas cheese and meats, and settled in for the carbfest.

I wasn't too worried by the dairy-free aspect of things, as I'm not a huge milk drinker and hate creamy things. I love all vegetables except broad beans so I'm no salad dodger either. The first few days were the toughest, not because I missed anything, but because I stood in front of the fridge thinking "what on earth am I going to eat".

Breakfasts didn't change too much. A simple swap of almond milk from normal milk meant that my usual weekday breakfasts of porridge or protein smoothies weren't affected.

Weekend breakfasts actually got better. I'll never go back to a greasy fry up after making these on a rainy Sunday morning...

So many avocados and I've rekindled my love of mushrooms. Vegan tip: Linda McCartney sausages are a game changer. I searched high and low for a vegan friendly sausage for breakfast and these were the only ones I could find and they're actually really good.

Lunches were pretty boring and this is what I found hardest. I always take lunch to work, and I'm used to taking a salad with some protein on the top. I piled my salads high with houmous and falafels most days, but found the options limited.

The best days were when I cooked extra from my dinner the night before, such as veggie burgers or soup, that I could take with me.

I stumbled across Jamie Oliver's recipe for vegan burgers here, and batch cooked them one evening. Packed full of protein, they're really light and fresh, and I'll be making these in the summer. The best thing about them is that they're tasty in their own right, without trying to be a poor substitute of a beef burger. Great with sweet potato fries too.

It got a lot easier as the month went on. I quickly got used to cups of tea with almond milk, and I found that I really just didn't need the meat on my plate. Jacket potatoes piled high with veggie chilli, curries packed full of vegetables, and I didn't even miss it from my cooked dinners. Even Bisto's beef gravy is vegan (though most nan's would argue that it's not even gravy...)

I didn't eat out much in January due to it being a busy period in work, and also the post Christmas crunch on the pockets. However, I still managed to get some vegan friendly takeaways in, and some home made. Tarkha Dhal is one of my favourite Indian meals anyway (The Lahore do an amazing one) so I didn't miss out with this either. Plus a side of kale, because by now I was feeling pretty smug and virtuous.

I'm so glad that I did Veganuary, and it's really helped force me into the eating habits that I wanted to instil in myself, but laziness and convenience was standing in my way.

Everything got so much easier by the end of the month, possibly helped by the changes I noticed in myself and my body. I didn't lose any weight on the scales, which wasn't the aim anyway, but I felt a lot lighter and much less bloated. The fact that I found out that Oreos were vegan friendly probably didn't help my case here.

My skin cleared up almost instantly. I didn't get a single spot throughout the month, and my energy levels were through the roof. I don't know if this was because of the lack of animal products, the increase in vegetables or both, but the 3 o'clock slump didn't exist. I slept better and was a lot more alert in the mornings.

So where am I now, in March? It took me a while to eat some meat, and I have eaten meat since. However, I wasn't craving it like I did a glass of wine post sober October. I'm still only drinking almond milk, and I've only had the smallest bit of cheese that's not vegan. I don't suppose there's a label for it, but now I'm trying to only eat meat and animal products as little as possible and where I can be sure they're locally and ethically sourced.

I've found that I just don't need those products on my plate all of the time, every day. I used to base my meals around a tasteless chicken breast or a cheap steak, and this has given me the confidence to start cooking again properly, and using different flavours and ingredients.

I'm trying not to come across preachy, as I'm aware that some people close up their ears at the word 'vegan'. Hopefully this will help those who are just a little curious, or want to cut down even a little bit. I searched for blogs as I felt pretty helpless when I first started veganuary, completely unprepared.

Feel free to tweet me or comment below if you want to steal any recipe ideas! I'll try and pop some up on the blog from time to time.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Bistro 8, Blackwood

My blogging time has been limited lately, and with my job December and January are complete write off's. However, here I am, back in 2017 with blogging goals that I'll undoubtedly fail at but for now, here's some food!

I've been meaning to write about this place after each meal, and I've never gotten around to it. I dined here a couple of times in 2016 so this post will be a bit of a mish mash of all my visits!

Bistro 8 used to be a pub, and has now been converted into a bar & restaurant. They focus on good hearty, locally sourced food, with a slightly Spanish twist. They offer a tapas menu, a decent wine list (with wine glasses bigger than my head) and the garlic bread is worth a visit on it's own.

I've not yet had the full Spanish experience here, but they usually offer one of their tapas dishes as a starter, and the calamari has been a top choice each time. Dusted with a thin batter, they're never greasy. I am also a sucker for a thwack of garlic (sorry Mr P) and the aioli dip always hits the spot.

The spicy chorizo 'scotch' egg was lovely and crunchy on the outside, but a little too rich for me on the inside.

The Spanish chicken thighs were cooked well, with a lovely crunchy skin in a chorizo sauce. Roast potatoes were crispy but soft enough inside to mop up the sauce. However, the sauce lacked a bit of the spice and heat I was expecting.

They know how to cook a proper roast though. These roasties were enormous, crunchy and squidgy. Perfect.

There is a set menu available Mon - Fri (5 - 7pm) which at £12.50 for two courses is excellent value. We always come away feeling outrageously full for a midweek supper. They usually have a few curries on the set menu, and the Malaysian and Thai style curries really pack in the flavour.

The only thing that really irks me about the set menu is the number of main courses requiring a supplement. If you're going to have a set menu, then make it just that! Rant over.

What Bistro 8 does do well is good hearty, home cooked meals just like this lasagne. It was brought to the table still bubbling away and was layered full of vegetables and pasta in a creamy bechamel sauce. 

We've also visited on special occasions, such as Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, and they do really step it up a notch here. The sizeable roasties above were from a Mother's Day meal, as were these little goats cheese golden nuggets.

Our most recent visit was on Valentine's Day, and I normally try to keep my camera locked away over our meals for at least one day of the year, but this dessert was too good not to share. Prosecco and lemon candy cheesecake, with lemon sorbet. 

The cheesecake was super soft with a spongy base (which I enjoyed even though I'm more a fan of a buttery biscuit base) but the best bit by far was the lemon sorbet. So sharp yet sweet at the same time, it did exactly what it was supposed to do after all the rich food that went before.

Bistro 8 manages to make you feel like you're in a top class restaurant, but in your pyjamas. In a good way. The cosy bar downstairs, and the laid back décor with it's slight nods to the Spanish flavour, echoes the food style. It's a place you'd be equally comfortable dressed up, or popping in midweek straight from work for an indulgent midweek dinner. Which I thoroughly urge you to do.

I am determined to go back one day and enjoy it true Spanish style, on a lazy sunny day in the beer garden, with a jug of sangria and plate after plate of tapas. I also need to take a picture of the garlic bread, which I was annoyed not to find a picture of in my photo library. If you go, make sure you order it even if it's not strictly on the menu. It's more of a loaf, but it's one of my weaknesses and I just can't stop eating it even when my zipper has burst. 

Maybe avoid it on a first date though.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Hang Fire Southern Kitchen, Barry

Remember me? I'm sure that I used to be a food blogger, once upon a time! This year has been completely crazy. I've started a new job and had so much going on, that Sun Sea & Sara has taken a bit of a back seat. Lots of food and adventures since you last saw me, that's for sure. I've been taking photos and posting up on Instagram, so hopefully I'll try and catch up on the blogging!

I've been so busy in fact, that I've managed to visit the incredible Hang Fire Southern Kitchen twice and somehow not told you all about it yet. So grab a beer and prepare to get very hungry...

It's worth the wait that you'll inevitably have for a table. They're still so busy that they're very often fully booked, and unfortunately I live just too far away to risk a walk in. However, I'd wait months (impatiently, granted) to get my hands on these Louisiana hot wings again. They have this addictive spicy, almost vinegary sauce on them and I can't get enough. I had them on both visits...and now I'm writing this again I'm off to book another table for a third batch.

I'm trying so hard to describe how good these are, but you just have to try them for yourself. Whilst gesturing to everyone else on the table about how spicy and juicy they are, with hot sauce dribbling down your chin.

I'm getting ahead of myself here though. Just in case you've been living in a cave for a couple of years and haven't bought any food from a truck recently, let me fill you in on the Hang Fire story (short version). Sam & Shauna are two awesome chicks who gave up their careers to eat their way around the US of A in search of the most badass barbecue and bring it back to Wales. They've really been the firing force behind the Cardiff street food movement, and still are. 2016 has seen the opening of their first restaurant down the at the beautiful Barry waterfront, which is going from strength to strength, while still maintaining a presence on the street food scene.

Number one rule on the day of your visit: Don't eat a thing all day.

If you're going for starters, get the hot wings. I don't care about anything else. But if you're not feeling spicy, the lil cheeky pies are a cute plate to share.

On my first visit, my friend and I (who is my equal in stomach filling ability) knew there was only one option. The Big Pit Plate. A sharing plate for two. Or should I say plates.

The meats: Brisket, St Louis ribs, Andouille sausage, Carolina style pulled pork. Oh and a little pot of glorious burnt ends and pickles.

The Hang Fire ribs are indescribable if you haven't tried them yourself. Smoked low and slow the Hang Fire way, with the pink smoke ring and the dry rub on top. Melt in your mouth good, the meat just falls off the bone. Ditch the forks and get stuck in.

Oh and the pulled pork. Oh and the brisket. Oh it's just all so good. I might not have blogged in a while but I really am all out of words to describe this barbecue heaven that is HF. Just go and eat it all. Except those juicy burnt ends...they're mine. Prepare to fight your whole table over those.

Nothing at HF is an afterthought. Even the carb tray was a fantastic mix of sides. A pot of slaw and pit beans each, a slice of cornbread and perfect chips. The light and tangy coleslaw recipe is in their book (available on Amazon, but I got free with a £20 hug), I made it for a BBQ and even my mayonnaise obsessed friends and family loved it. It just goes so much better with the meat than the usual claggy stuff you buy in the shops.

Even the sauces are made to their own recipe, the espresso sauce being my favourite drizzled on top of the chunky beef brisket.

While us girls worked our way through the Pit Plate, the boys both went for the brisket. Complete with burnt ends and piled high on Texas toast (which I think is a slice of garlic bread to you and I). That ring of pink around the outside called the 'smoke ring' is a chemical reaction, and is the true sign of a low and slow smoking of the meat (which you won't find at certain "smokehouses" that pop up around town).

Second time around, it was just Mr P and I on my birthday. I picked out the flat iron steak which comes with the dreamy chimichurri sauce and creamy bone marrow butter. The steak was so thick yet cut like butter, and just melted in the mouth. Don't underestimate the chips either, I was still picking at these skin on beauties long after I'd run out of room.

Mr P went for something he'd always wanted to try, that American classic of chicken and waffles, but with a sweet potato fry swap.

The verdict - as with everything else at HF - was awesome. Not being completely new to the sweet & savoury aspect (obsessed with bacon and maple syrup pancakes), it was just how he imagined it. The fried chicken had a great crunch, without being too greasy. The coating had a good balance of spice, including a hit of black pepper that cut through the sweetness. The waffles were huge chunky things, and I did enjoy the one bite I was allowed...

The Hang Fire Southern Kitchen is everything I'd hoped for when I heard they had a restaurant. Aside from the utterly faultless food, the Pumphouse is beautiful and a Pinterest dream (check out the toilets). The staff are super friendly and there's just a good fun vibe about the place. Despite the fight to book a table, it's organised so that it never feels crowded. The drinks list is pretty hefty, with a good stock of craft beers such as Beavertown and Brewdog, which all go well with the food.

Grab some friends, and go book a table now here! Don't forget to end with a pickleback!

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Sunday Best - The Grill, Celtic Manor

I've visited Celtic Manor a number of times, but hadn't yet experienced their Sunday Lunch. A few weeks ago, a few friends were down in the area for a stag do with Mr P, so accompanied with the ladies we had a few rounds of (crazy, obviously) golf and then headed over to The Grill for lunch.

This was the first time we've experienced The Grill, as we've usually leant towards the Rafters restaurant on previous visits. The Grill is the clubhouse restaurant, which overlooks the Roman Road golfcourse. That doesn't mean a lot to us non-golfy people, but it is a pretty view nevertheless, even on the grey and drizzly day that we had.

A couple of lovely crusty mini loaves were brought to the table while we reviewed the menu, with the usual hunk of creamy butter and a heap of salt for the unhealthy ones like me to pile on top to our hearts content...

Although named 'The Grill', the menu is pretty extensive, including burgers, salads and pastas amongst the meaty grill offerings. A couple of the party had these options, and they looked quite good, but we're here for one thing only guys. Winner winner, chicken dinner.

A juicy chicken breast with a charred crunchy skin was placed upon a pile of wonderfully fruity red cabbage. I absolutely love red cabbage on a roast but unless it's Christmas it rarely makes an outing, so I was happy to see this. Coupled with a handful of roast veggies and a purée, made for quite a sweet dinner.

The two roasties were pretty much perfect in my eyes, with the ideal crunch to soft ratio (I know, I'm becoming a real potato nerd). Chicken gravy is never going to be the star of the show, but even so I could have done with a little more than the spillage that we got. No jug means a docking of the points I'm afraid.

However, at £16.50, it made my eyes water just a little. I'm well aware that this is the Celtic Manor etc, and I didn't go expecting 'Toby Carvery' prices or sizes. There was no extra gravy or vegetables, and as lovely as the chicken was, I did expect a little bit more. I can't help compare the fact that this one dish cost more than the entire 3 courses at The Ruperra, and the quality there was just as good, or even better.

A few of us rounded off lunch with dessert, and there was one offering that caught my eye, the cola and cherry sundae. We ordered one, with a couple of spoons.

Now this, was amazing. Drool worthy. The entire thing was like a cherry cola float, and I loved the retro sundae glass to go with it. Cherry ripple ice cream, with cola gel and cherry compote swirled through, topped with some kind of amazing fizzy cola whipped cream. No prizes for guessing whose spoon did the biggest damage.

Hiding at the bottom of the glass was a glorious little chocolate truffle which burst full of cherry goodness when bitten into. This was a total dream of a dessert, and I'd happily pay the £7.50 for this again. It was huge, and easily enough for two people to share.

Dessert just about saved the day for us at The Grill. Lunch was lovely but not spectacular, and the service could have been improved. As most of us were on driving duty, our drinks order was not complicated, but what we received was incorrect and it took a number of tries to get some water, and then the bill, to the table.

Then there's the prices. With barely a main meal on the menu for less than £15, it isn't very purse friendly. Add that to £3.60 for a pint of postmix Pepsi and £4.70 for a Fosters, it can easily add up for a family. Oh, and don't forget the 10% service charge added automatically to your bill (a huge bugbear of mine). Ouch.

As a special evening meal, I think the prices could possibly be justified, but personally, there are much better Sunday lunch deals out there than at The Grill. Even some of the other Manor restaurants offer a set menu Sunday lunch at much better value, so it's worth looking around first if you're after somewhere special.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Stable, Cardiff

I know I go on and on about food, but you may remember me harking on and on about a little pizza and cider haven in Newquay here called The Stable. Well back then I thought that Fistral Beach was the only one, but not only do they have numerous branches, they've also brought a piece of their West Country lovin' to Cardiff.

I've been dying to try The Stable ever since I missed their opening night, but life and all sorts of other food kept getting in the way. So with a quiet afternoon off work one day, Mr P and I headed into the capital to hunter gather ourselves some lunch.

We ordered ourselves a cider flight and had a nose at the menu. The cider tasting flights are such good value and a great way to try out a couple of ciders, if the 80-odd varieties on offer are a little overwhelming. They're served in 1/3 of a pint, so if one happens to taste like cat wee, you can palm it off onto your drinking partner... *look innocent*

Both the full and lunch menus were on offer, but surprise, we couldn't decide. Mr P went for the 'Monmouth Trotter' pizza from the lunch menu, and I picked the Wild Rooster pie from the main menu. I was sold by the roast potatoes, to be honest.

I know it might look pretty, but I really do hate it when someone shoves a lump of rocket on top of a pizza. It's so unnecessary and annoying, especially when said pizza comes with a side salad in a bowl next to it. Rant over.

Pizza was pronounced lovely and crispy, and with plenty of topping.  It felt a little on the small side, but that's probably our fault for being such naughty breakfast-skipping late lunchers. This was from the lunch menu too, so more than adequate with the salad for a normal weekday lunch. For those with normal sized stomachs.

I think I won in the food stakes to be honest.

Filled to the brim with big cubes of gammon and gooey leeks, it doesn't get much better comfort food than that. Combined with a couple of potato wedges and an amazing tomato salsa to dip them in, this was a winner. The pie pastry truly was very good, piping hot and flaky but sturdy, and went well with the ciders on offer. Even the salad was tasty and well dressed, and the pickled onion a nice touch. I do wonder what happened to the other half however...

A good start to a chill out date afternoon in Cardiff. It's not the same, however, staring out at Barrack Lane instead of a Fistral Beach sunset so I just can't quite get the same excitement as I did first time around. Nevertheless, I'm sure I'll be back with a bunch friends for a relaxed evening to make our way through the cider menu, and for some more of those lovely roast potatoes.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Sunday Best - The Ruperra Arms, Newport

Next up in the Sunday lunch series is The Ruperra Arms, situated in Bassaleg, Newport. I've been looking forward to trying lunch here for a long while, after many recommendations from friends and family alike. We saw on their twitter that they had a last minute table free for Sunday lunch, and at a loose end, we nabbed it.

The Ruperra is a seriously cute looking little pub, cwtchy corners and log fires for winter, and a twinkling fairy light garden for the summer. We grabbed our drinks (Tiny Rebel on tap = points on the board already) and settled in with the menu.

Sunday lunch is offered at £8.95, £12.95 and £15.95 for one, two and three courses, and in the interests of a good blog (how long can I use that excuse?) we went for all three.

First up was a smoked bacon Caesar salad for me, and a smoked salmon and crayfish parfait for Mr P.  There's not a lot you can say about salad, but it was a perfectly pleasant starter. Creamy cheddar cheese went well with the salty chunks of bacon, and the crunchy croutons pulled it all together.

The salmon parfait looked very pretty, and came with plenty of the bloody Mary sauce which pleased Mr P who's partial to the spicy cocktail.

I usually go for the chicken dinner, but the 7 hour roasted beef brisket sold me, and I'm so glad it did. I don't know what they did to that beef, but it was incredible. Thick slices were piled high on the plate, and were as soft as butter. Definitely worth every minute of slow roasting time, and clearly good quality beef as it wasn't sinewy in the slightest.

Mr P went for the chicken, and his reports from across the table were that it was a very good roasted breast of chicken, and most importantly for a roast chicken, still moist and juicy.

As you can see, the yorkies were huge and pillowy, and it came with both new and roast potatoes, and there's a stuffing ball hiding underneath there too. I'm not too keen on the bit of green strung across the top though, a little bit unnecessary?

Along came an extra jug of heavenly 'Nanna' gravy, thick and flavoursome and made with those glorious beef juices. It was lush, the entire jug disappeared between us both, and Mr P declared it "the best gravy I've ever had in my life" - that's a serious statement from a man who's seen a lot of roasts! There was a good selection of crunchy and vibrant veggies. I love a green bean so was happy to see those make an appearance.

My only disappointment was the roast potatoes, which looked perfect on the plate, but they just weren't crunchy at all on the outside. They were a good size and bronzed nicely, but just lacking the crunchy edges that I love so much.

I was completely stuffed by now, especially after mopping up all the rich gravy, but I was too intrigued by the dessert menu, or more specifically "Steve's OMG brownie"...

A chocolatey hunk of naughtiness with a scoop of creamy vanilla bean ice cream and the most picture perfect of strawberries. This was a real slab of thick, rich chocolate. Just the thing for chocolate lovers.

Mr P went for the lighter side of dessert, with a lemon posset and shortbread biscuits. I'm not one for those type of desserts, but he absolutely raved about this. Probably the better option to round off a filling lunch and cleanse your palette, but this girl needed the chocolate.

For £15.95, I honestly walked out of The Ruperra feeling like I'd robbed them. The standard of each course was outstanding, and just unbeatable for that price. I can't wait to go back and try out the normal menu, and I'd go back for Sunday lunch in a heartbeat.

Make sure you book up ahead (details here) as this place gets very busy and booked up quickly. There were some walk ins turned away while we were eating. Oh, and have the beef. Trust me.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Urban Tap House, Newport

I love this place so much I kind of want to keep it all to myself so that I've always got a seat. But that wouldn't be fair on anyone, and besides, I talk about it way too much to keep it a secret.

Tiny Rebel and therefore Urban Tap House are easily the best thing to have happened to the 'Port in such a long time. Get your butt out of Friars Walk and up to the Market and try a pub where there's not a pint of Carling in sight and your dinner's ingredients are sat on a deli counter less than 20 metres away.

Mr P and I were after all of the carbs (as per usual) and decided on a pizza to share and some sides. I really fancied the breakfast pizza, but we compromised on the 'Signature' which was pulled pork, BBQ sauce and candied bacon dust (£9.95). Yes, I was sold on magical sounding bacon dust.

To cover all the necessary food groups we added some sweet potato fries (£2.50) and some pulled pork dough balls (£4.95).

In hindsight, the pizza might have been enough. Enough for three people that is. Gargantuan is the only adjective big enough to describe it. Oh, that and lush. The deep sweet and smoky BBQ sauce made with 'Dirty Stop Out' stout really elevates the pulled pork to another level entirely.

The sweet potato fries were the perfect balance of crisp and crunchy on the outside, but unlike so many other establishments who obliterate the potato element completely in the fryer, they still retained some soft sweet potato goodness.

Never ones to over dress or under order, us two. These dough balls had to come home with us and get devoured later on with a beer for tea instead, as they were just too much to fit in. Huge chewy doughy balls to pull apart and dunk in some more of that Dirty Stop Out BBQ sauce, filled with even more pulled pork.

The incredible Tiny Rebel beers are the other reason we keep coming back to Urban Tap House (both Cardiff & Newport). If you get a chance to try 'Stay Puft' when you visit, please do. It's a delicious marshmallow porter, and probably the most flavoursome pint I've ever had. It's glorious. It's like melted toasted marshmallows in an espresso. 

The menu will be undergoing a revamp soon, and as the majority of the produce comes from the Market next door there are always new specials to try out. There's a bunch of events coming up over the summer, and with a sizeable beer garden to soak up the sun, maybe I'll see you there eh?