Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Simple Summer BBQ Recipes

Last weekend was my annual summer party. I have a bbq every year and invite everyone I know, and then proceed to freak out about everything that could go wrong for the two weeks beforehand (examples: rain appearing, people turning up once the food has gone cold, running out of beer...)

Over the years I have made various different food and drinks, some simple and some complicated, but I think this year I generally got it right. I vetoed certain dishes that have been popular in the past because they're just not right for an outdoor event that will last throughout the day - I always used to make Sophie Dahl's guacamole but it just doesn't look that appetising after an hour in the sun. So this year I tried to keep the things I made in advance super simple - there were of course also the various burgers ad sausages that are a bit of a staple (a lot of which are now in my freezer) - but here are the (super, super) simple things I dished up...

* Lime and Honey Chicken Thighs
Literally one of the easiest prep-in-advance dishes ever. For 800g of chicken you will need one large lime and 4 tablespoons of honey, as well as a bit of sea salt and black pepper. You just need to chuck it all in a pan - in the order of half a lime, all the honey, the other half the lime - cover in tin foil and leave to marinade for a couple of hours (as long as you can, really) and then just chuck it onto the fire!

* Pork and Mango Skewers
For 400g of diced pork shoulder you will probably need one large mango. Rub your pork in olive oil, wholegrain mustard and crème fraîche (I went for an equal amount of both the mustard and cream, and kept adding until I thought they were suitably covered), and then once this is done cut your mango up into similar-sized pieces. I bought some small skewers (rather than those super long ones that always seem too big when the moment comes) and put 3 bits of each on each one. I did start to run out of mango before I did pork (which is definitely the better option!) towards the end and started to cut down to just two bits of mango, so try and get the largest one you can find.

* Feta Cheese and Pomegranate Salad
This is a salad I usually chuck together when I'm stuck for inspiration as it's delicious and easy and goes with pretty much everything. You need sweet gem lettuce, a big old chunk of feta, cucumber and pomegranate seeds. I usually add avocado as well but swapped it this time for some salmon that we cooked on the barbecue before most people arrived.

* Mint and Lime Sparkling Water
I like to make one non-alcoholic drink for things like this as there is always at least a couple people who will be driving and it's nice to make people think you've made an effort for them. This is one of the simplest ones I've made and is so inoffensive it generally works for all occasions (it also works when used as a mixer for vodka and white rum, which is always handy towards the end of the evening!). Cut a lime in half, and squeeze the juice of one half into a jug of sparkling water. Cut the other half into segments and chuck those in, along with as many mint leaves as you can be bothered with. Mix it all up and, for good measure, chuck in the lime shell from the half you squeezed (you could always add a bit of lime cordial if you're that way inclined). Very summery and refreshing.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

A Week In… Llandeillo

I have spent a lot of time in Wales. My grandmother was born and raised there, and so when I was younger we always did at least a couple of trips a year to visit the family. As I've grown older my trips have become less frequent, but over the last few years I have tried to visit at least once a year.

[Aside - I really want to learn at least basic Welsh, any tips for any Welsh-language tutoring apps??]

A few weeks ago I spent just under a week in Llandeillo, in Carmarthenshire. It's one of our return-to areas, and where we have stayed the last few times we have visited. It was one of those lovely holidays where you return to the places you usually make a visit to, as well as spending just the right amount of time relaxing. Here are some of my recommendations for anyone visiting the area:

* Shopping

The great thing about this area is that you are never too far away from somewhere to get your high-street-shopping fix, and somewhere to have a poke around in independent stores. The nearest city is Swansea, but i've never found the shopping to really be worth the hassle of the journey. Closer is Carmarthen, which has a good range of recognisable stores as well as a big Debenhams, which should suit your shopping needs.

For those wishing to go down the more independent-shops route, two areas I definitely think are worth a visit are Llandeillo itself (two of my favourite shops are Scorpio and Peppercorn) and Narberth (in particular, the Golden Sheaf Gallery).

* Eating

We only ate out one evening whilst we were there, and we chose The Angel Bistro in Llandeillo for it. You can never be too sure of what to expect when you're staying somewhere with the emphasis on local, however we were really happy with our choice. The food was all interesting and tasty (my prawn and salmon bruschetta starter was a particular highlight) and also ridiculously good value.

We also had lunch at Wright's Food Emporium in Llanarthe. This was a real treat and comes massively recommended from me - as well as serving food they also sell loads of meats, cheeses, pies, etc to enjoy at home. I had a pork belly bap and it was completely delicious. We also spent some time in the wine and beer section, buying both a selection of ales and a bottle of red wine. If you only visit one food-centric place in the area - this is the one!

* Visiting

The Corran Hotel and Spa - my mum and I spent a day visiting the Corran as we wanted to use the Spa, and while we were there we found it so beautiful we decided to stay for afternoon tea. The treatments we had were fab (I went for a massage and facial) and we were also able to use the pool and relaxation room throughout our visit. We were also shown round a couple of the bedrooms which were lush - I'm already planning a mini-break there for later in the year.

Aberglasney Gardens - situated in Llangathen, walking round the restored house and gardens is a lovely way to spend the day, and definitely worth a visit if you're in the area. The main house hosts a small craft fair, and there is a cafe on site which serves drinks and snacks. You can also rent out one of the cottages to stay in, which means you can access the gardens whenever you want.

Burry Port to Llanelli - this suggests that you start in Llanelli, but it worked better for us to get the train to Burry Port and walk back and I don't think it really makes any difference. Doing just that section of the walk is about 4.5 miles, so not so much of a challenge as the full one!

Tenby and Llansteffan - the first is worth a visit for the picture ops of the beach and coloured houses, and the latter for the castle.

On the way home we stopped off in Hay-on-Wye (the town of books). As a not-so-secret bookworm I always love to visit here, and we stopped off at the Richard Booth Bookshop for a quick stop in the lovely cafe (definitely worth a visit) and a quick purchase of some reads.

Monday, 21 July 2014

A Guide to... Dubai

I have visited Dubai a couple of times to visit a friend, and so when another friend of mine asked for a couple of recommendations for an upcoming trip I quickly jotted down the below. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and is geared towards the type of thing I think her and her boyfriend would enjoy, but for a basic overview I think it suits!

* Dubai is HOT
* Dubai is EXPENSIVE 
* Dubai is CONSERVATIVE [cover your shoulders and don't smooch in public though and you will be fine]

Dubai working weeks are Sunday - Thursday, and a mega tradition in Dubai is the Friday Brunch. This is something you HAVE to do whilst you're there - even if it's just for the experience of seeing all that gluttony on display. It is pricey, but the concept is all you can eat and drink for the afternoon, and the ranges of food on offer are so ridiculous even the fussiest of eaters will be able to find something to suit.
Last time I was there we went to the Bubbalicious brunch at the Westin hotel - this costs 390 AED for the alcohol-free brunch, and 490 / 650 AED for the brunch with free-flowing sparkling or bubbly respectively.
Pretty much every hotel in Dubai will have their own version of brunch so have a look at what your hotel is doing as you may get a discount as a hotel guest.
I repeat - this is a must.

The Dubai Museum is situated in the old-town, which is also worth a wander around. The museum is pretty basic but is worth a visit, especially for all the models of camels and the video at the end that seems to predict dinosaurs will be in Dubai soon. Keep an eye out in this area for places serving more traditional food - there are a couple of gems round here which will have delicious food for a very good price. In this area you can also get a boat across the river to various markets (spice, gold, etc), and also make sure you stop off for a mint-lemonade at one of the cafes with tables on the river-bank. You can get a lovely view of the river here, especially in the evening (also it's not so hot to sit in the sun then!)

The Dubai Mall is worth a visit, if only just for the giant aquarium in the middle of it. The mall is huge, and contains every type of shop right from the budget end to designer. The fountain show is also worth a watch (it's worth finding out beforehand what times this is going to be), and maybe try and time lunch during this as there are a few (not too pricey) restaurants from which you can see the fountains. You can also get a really good view of the Burj Khalifa from here. I think we might have eaten in a place called Madeleine when I was last there, but if you can't see the fountains from their outside area then that is incorrect!

All of the hotels have their own restaurants and bars (at least three in most hotels) which will be variably priced and cuisined. If you fancy a view then the bars at the Burj Khalifa and Burj al Arab may be worth a visit - both of the hotels have viewing platforms which you have to pay to get up to, so you may as well visit the bar instead!

Eating out in Dubai can be expensive. There are always a range of cheaper options but these are likely to be chains so keep that in mind. Last time I was there we ate at Fogueira in the Ramada Plaza hotel, which is a brazilian-style restaurant with, basically, an unlimited supply of meat. They also have a decent salad section so worth a look. A lot of the nice restaurants in Dubai like to look quite fancy - whether they are part of a hotel or an independent - so it's best to work out your budget beforehand and then take it from there.

Again, drinking is going to be pricey so be sensible with the evenings out you plan. Some places that are quite nice and perhaps worth the money are Buddha Bar (great for business-men spotting), The Palm at the One and Only, and Maya at The Royal Meridian.

Most hotels will have their own bar(s) and restaurant(s) so check out what these have to offer - and, of course, the concierge will be able to provide you with restaurant recommendations to suit your tastes.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Planning the Perfect Hen Do

Planning a hen do can be tricky; it's hard to find the balance between recognising all the traditional elements of a hen do without it venturing into the land of tack. I recently planned a hen do, and here are my 4 top tips for trying to plan the perfect one...

Get Inside Your Hen's Brain
I was lucky with the recent hen do as I had known the bride-to-be since we were bubbas. However, it isn't always this easy and there will usually be people there that have known the hen at various stages of her life. Even though the bride has chosen you to do all the big arranging, don't be afraid to ask for help or advice from everyone else. She will have asked you not just because she thinks you'll arrange something awesome, but also because she isn't worried about you getting on with all her other friends, even if you've not met them before. If you think it would be nice to have something to remind her of her teenage years when you didn't know her, then just ask those who did. The best types of hen dos are always those that have managed to reflect the hen from all the best moments of her life.

Know Your Audience
Although the main purpose of a hen do is to ensure the bride-to-be has an amazing time, you have to also keep in mind who else is going to be attending. If you know the mother of the bride is going to feel uncomfortable drinking through a penis straw then you also know that this is only going to make the bride-to-be uncomfortable too. There are always ways to tone down (or up!) the activities you want to do without it meaning nobody has any fun - on our recent hen do we played Mr and Mrs but stuck to the 'first kiss' questions rather than the 'first hump' questions. Another important one is to remember if there are going to be any under-18s attending (pesky sisters!) - nobody is going to feel more awkward than you if you lead everyone to a bar only to find that not everyone can get in.

Personalise, Personalise, Personalise
The best hen dos are always the ones where the bride-to-be feels like the entire thing, non-stop, from start to finish has revolved around her. The smallest of touches can make this happen - whether it's putting together the best photos of her with all the other attendees, making a playlist of all her favourite songs or bringing a couple of her favourite films in case a pyjama party beckons - and will absolutely make her feel like the queen bee of the event.

Think Outside the Box
When I questioned my friend about the type of thing she wanted to do on her hen do she gave the very standard response - afternoon tea, exploring the town, dinner... All these things are popular hen do activities because they are brilliant things to do, however this doesn't mean that there's no room for a bit of imagination. We did afternoon tea on a river cruise, explored the area by geocaching and had caterers at the cottage rather than going out for dinner. None of these ideas are particularly revolutionary (let's not flatter ourselves here) but were all just different enough to the norm to make it feel like it was a personalised hen do that still ticked all the boxes of things she'd loved on other hen dos she'd been on.

Generally though, the best advice is always just going to be to relax! You've been chosen to organise it for a reason - just keep this in mind and everything will go swimmingly.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Weekending - Stratford-upon-Avon

I recently spent a weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon on a hen do, and although some of the bits and pieces we did were quite hen-specific other parts were definite must-dos for anyone visiting this lovely town for a couple of days. Here are some of my highlights.

* There are lots of choices for places to stay, ranging from budget guest houses to boutique hotels. As there were a few of us though we decided to rent a cottage for the weekend, and settled on the Unicorn Barns. The house was lovely and perfect for our group - the rooms (especially the communal areas) were lovely and spacious and the kitchen was fully-equipped with all the cooking utensils we would need. The house was about a 20-minute walk away from the centre of town which was really nice as well, it meant we really felt we were away from the centre of town in a relaxed setting. However, the communication from the owners beforehand was frustratingly slow and I'm now having problems getting our deposit back so do bear this in mind if you go down this route.

* Stratford-upon-Avon is well-known for it's cultural history, and this shouldn't go ignored when visiting. Our hen was keen on afternoon tea, so we did a river cruise with Bancroft Cruisers which included prosecco, tea and scones, as well as an informal guided tour of the area. This was perfect for us - our guide was the right balance of amusing and informative, and they were more than happy to accommodate any requests we had when booking. This is excellent value for money, and comes highly recommended from me. Post-cruising we continued our exploration on foot - stopping at the RSC (mainly in the gift shop) and also the church Shakespeare is buried in.

* In pretty much every area in the world you can find something a bit more unique to do if you search [google] enough. I wanted to find a museum that was a bit different to the norm for our trip, and found the perfect one in the form of The MAD Museum. We were't entirely sure what to expect before we visited as I couldn't get the website to load properly, however we needn't have worried as this was a fun and fascinating way to spend our time. With things that would enthral both kids and adults, this is placed firmly at the top of my list of recommendations.

* As popular as Stratford-upon-Avon is, it should go without saying that there are multiple dining and drinking options. We only ate out once during our trip (as we used Benson's Catering one night who were great - all the food tasted fab and they even washed up afterwards!) and chose The One Elm to do this. Everyone enjoyed their meals and it was very reasonably priced so I would visit again - even if one of our (two) waitresses seemed super grumpy!

* And finally, shopping. It seemed to me that Stratford-upon-Avon had just the right mix of high street shops and independent ones, with a few of us making some purchases during our visit...!

We were so lucky with the weather when we visited as it was generally really hot and sunny, and this really made the weekend just that little bit more special and it really seemed the ideal place for the hen do. I'd never visited the town before so I'm really glad that I now have, and also know a few places to visit again if I return!

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

June and July

This is my first time at doing a sort of round-up post but I'm not really sure why - everyone in the world knows I love a list and so I'm surprised I haven't been drafting this throughout the month anyway!

June was quite a busy (read: expensive) month in the end. I suppose that as soon as Summer comes it gets that way - you're more in the mood for socialising and less in the mood for watching boxsets at home (though I, of course, have been doing that as well - I'm ploughing through Desperate Housewives and also enjoying the new series' of New Girl and The Mindy Project). I also finished reading On The Road (didn't really enjoy it - found it indulgent), read The Fault In Our Stars (ploughed through it in Oslo) and Treasure Island (only started as it was one of the three free ebooks that came with my phone, and I found myself without a book in Oslo airport), and started The Jane Austen Book Club.

So, what has all my money gone on this month...

I've had dinners at Franco Manca, Frank's Restaurant and Mussels Bar, Gourmet Pizza, Porky's and The Buxted Inn, as well as eating as much as I could at Taste of London. I went to see Clarence Darrow at The Old Vic, had a bridesmaid dress altered, watched some football, gone to Wimbledon (finally seen Nadal play SWOON) and had one of our work events that has been months in the planning. I also FINALLY upgraded to Spotify premium, which is not a big deal to anyone else but I'm already pretty sure it's the best decision I've made so far this year.

And then of course we went to Oslo

Next month I'm going to be spending a week in Llandeillo and a weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon for a hen do. The hen do is one I've been organising for months and although I can't wait for it to be here I cannot lie and say I won't be relieved once it's all done with! Writing that one up will be a long one, that was probably another draft I should have had on the go for a while...!