31 August 2015

Review: Crosstown Doughnuts

Here's another review I've been sitting on for a while, as I first went to Crosstown Doughnuts in April this year. I really must start putting pen to paper more frequently (or rather finger to keypad).

I first tried Crosstown doughnuts at their little coffee and doughnut nook in Piccadilly Station, which was a pop up store. I love doughnuts (obviously, who doesn't?) and was intrigued to hear about these unusual sourdough ones, so I swung by to try a couple. Since then they've opened a doughnut and coffee bar on Broadwick Street, Soho, and are about to open another location in Spitalfields market. As well as their own cafes, they also appear at various markets in London (such as Leather Lane) and are stocked in some shops too (I recently noticed them at Whole Foods Kensington). 

The difference with Crosstown doughhnuts, as I've mentioned, is that their dough is partly made with sourdough. This not only makes for a more substantial texture than your average doughnut (it feels more like eating a soft bread than a doughnut), it also makes them noticeably less greasy. Apparently this is because the closer crumb means less oil is absorbed in the deep fat frying process. I suppose that makes it ok to eat more than one then!

Crosstown have an interesting selection of doughnut flavours: some that you'd expect, and others that are more adventurous. Most recently I tried their Raspberry Jam doughnut. I hadn't tried it before as it's pretty vanilla as far as doughnut flavours go, but I was really surprised at how good it was. You can tell that the jam is homemade - it has a really nice, thick texture, with lots of fruit: far from the nondescript, sweet, red sauce that usually fills doughnuts. The jam was also reasonably tart which I liked - that worked well with the sweetness of the doughnut and stopped it from being sickly.


The jam could barely contain itself. Neither could I.

Other flavours I've tried include Sea Salt Caramel & Banana Cream. Now, I love both of those flavours separately but I was extremely sceptical about putting the two together. Turns out that they are in fact a match made in heaven. The doughnut itself is chocolate flavour, and it's filled with a smooth banana cream, and topped with the salted caramel, as well as some crunchy chocolate 'soil' - well, why not? It is very sweet though - make sure to have a coffee or glass of milk on standby when trying this one.

I've also tried the Lamnut, so called because it's inspired by the Australian Lamington cake (a chocolate and coconut sponge). It had a great flavour, but the cake doughnut was a bit dry for me. I suppose this is when that little bit of extra fat picked up in the cooking process would have helped. A thin layer of raspberry jam across the middle of the doughnut nicely lifts the particularly dense texture of this one.


So many flavours!

There are lots of flavours left for me to try... the Peanut Butter & Berry one is definitely calling my name. You can see the full list of flavours here.

As well as doughnuts, Crosstown Soho also serves coffee, with London-based roasting company Assembly providing the beans. They also sell Sandow's cold brew coffee.

If you have a sweet tooth, I'm sure you'll enjoy trying Crosstown's wares! And if you really, really like them, make sure you pick up one of their loyalty cards so you can get your seventh doughnut free.

What's your favourite type of doughnut?

10 August 2015

Restaurant Review: Shoryu Ramen

Having recently announced my sojourn to Japan, it seemed like a good time to write up the review of a ramen restaurant that I went to a while back - Shoryu Ramen.

I actually first ate at Shoryu Ramen a couple of years ago, as a pre-theatre dinner before seeing Book of Mormon (it's brilliant, do go and see it if you haven't already). Created by the team behind Japan Centre, Shoryu Ramen had a pop up restaurant on Denman Street for about a month at the time (it has now became a permanent restaurant). I remember having the Dracula Tonkotsu, which was topped with caramelised black garlic oil and garlic chips. It was pungent, fiery and delicious. It really did live up to its name... there was so much garlic in it that you didn't have to worry about a living being, let alone a vampire, wishing to get too close to you after eating it.

I visited Shoryu Ramen again more recently, and this time decided to go for a slightly more sociable ramen. I ate at their branch on Regent Street (they now have four dine-in restaurants, including the original Soho restaurant and locations in Liverpool Street and Carnaby Street).

All of the ramen served at Shoryu are tonkotsu style - this means that the base of the ramen broth is created by slowly simmering pork bones for over 12 hours to create a rich stock. At Shoryu, the ramen are specifically Hakata tonkotsu, hailing from the Hakata district in Fukuoka in Kyushu, Japan. I'm actually stopping over in Fukuoka when I fly over to Japan in October, so I'm going to see if I can find any authentic Hakata tonkotsu ramen to sample at the airport!

So, as I was saying, I wanted to steer clear of the garlic this time, and so I kept it simple and went for the signature ramen: Shoryu Ganso Tonkotsu. As with all the other ramen on the menu, this comes topped with char siu barbecue pork belly, nitamago egg (soft-boiled and seasoned with soy sauce), spring onions, sesame, ginger and nori seaweed.


Shoryu ganso tonkotsu ramen

There is something so soothing about ramen: the combination of hot, savoury broth and hearty, filling noodles does it. Soup is said to soothe the soul, and this one certainly does -  the rich, creamy flavour of the broth has a real depth to it, making it incredibly satisfying. All the toppings help to take it to another level, - the pickled ginger really cutting through the richness, the tender, sweet pork belly echoes the flavour of the broth, and the soft boiled egg is simply delicious in its own right. The different textures and flavours of the toppings really help make it an interesting dish - usually I would get bored halfway through eating a bowl of soup but certainly not with this.

And because you can never have too much pork (never!), I also had a char siu barbecue pork belly hirata bun.



I love the soft, springy texture of these buns! A slice of cucumber and some salad added welcome crunch to the mix, either side of the tender, flavoursome pork. The lashings of mayonnaise made the whole thing particularly moreish. I could have eaten a couple for sure!

I'm looking forward to trying some more regional variations of ramen when I travel to Japan. And because I'll be living there for a while, I'm sure I'll also be tucking into instant ramen pots every now and then, particularly on those days when I just can't face cooking (or need a quick hangover cure!). Instant noodles were actually voted the invention most Japanese are proud of recently. You can't deny that they are kind of brilliant.

But if you're looking for real ramen in London, Shoryu Ramen is a good place to start!

Have you been to Shoryu Ramen? Do you have a favourite ramen bar or Japanese restaurant?

07 August 2015

Ride London 100 (well, 50 for me)

On Sunday 2 August, I arrived at the Olympic Park in Stratford along with 25,000 other cyclists, to take on the challenge of riding 100 miles. Having discovered I had a place in February, and having started training in May, this event had loomed large on the horizon for some time. When my alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 4.30am that morning, it was hard to believe that THE BIG DAY had finally arrived. Before I talk about the day itself, I'm going to say a few things about my training (because I never got around to posting a training update - oops!).

Beautiful rides in Richmond Park



Going on some long rides in this beautiful Royal Park was definitely a highlight of my training. Richmond Park is heaven for cyclists (and indeed runners). One loop of the park is about 7 miles and there are enough undulations and hills (and deer!) to keep things interesting.

Wattbike classes at Cadence Performance
I made sure to regularly attend wattbike sessions during my training. They proved a great way to have a high intensity session on the bike without having to worry about navigating, bike handling and all the other annoying things you have to think about when riding on the road. I'm lucky to have Cadence Performance a stone's throw away from my house. It's a brilliant hub for cyclists, offering everything from bike fitting and servicing/repairs to coaching, lactate threshold testing, yoga lessons and more: even a (very practical) inner tube vending machine for those passing by with a puncture.

Indoor cycling classes on wattbikes are available at Cadence every day, and I tried to go once a week during training. Wattbikes are different to your regular spin studio bike in a number of ways... they allow you to check your pedal technique, and have a combination of air and magnetic braking which means they feel more like a real bike. The instructors at Cadence were also brilliant, making every lesson challenging and different to the last.

Indoor cycling studio at Cadence Performance

Training Nutrition
I like to use a mixture of 'real' food and sports supplements when training. A special thanks to Thanks For Frank's for providing me with some of their top notch granola bars to see me through my training. This is the sort of real food that I like to eat to keep me going on a long ride... oats are a great low GI food so they release the energy slowly over time; plus the sugar in the bars gives you the instant pick-me-up you need to prevent bonking. These also come in a number of different flavours so I could mix it up a bit and not get bored... but Salted Caramel was the best!


I also used High5 zero tabs to replenish my electrolytes whilst hydrating, and Clif Shot Blocks (these are a brilliant alternative to sports gels, and much tastier!). On the day itself, I used all of the above, plus the old classic: fig rolls.

OK, now on to THE BIG DAY.

As said BIG DAY approached, I began to worry less about finishing 100 miles (I was sure that I had the stamina and endurance to do this), and more about being able to cycle fast enough to make it to each of the hubs before their respective cut-off times. Unfortunately, my worry proved to be justified. My mountain bike frame was just too heavy to go as fast as required (on average, just under 12mph) and so I ended up missing the cut-off time at the half way point of Newlands Corner.

However, my Ride London 50 was an incredible experience nonetheless. Riding through the closed streets of London was an amazing opportunity - it felt so liberating, and it really was as if cyclists were reclaiming the streets! There was a brilliant atmosphere throughout, especially in some of the Surrey towns where they'd made a proper day of it, creating a festival/fair for the spectators to enjoy whilst watching the race. It was great to cycle through Surrey, especially parts that I didn't know as well... it has some truly beautiful parts - I just wish I'd had the time to stop and admire some of the views!

Even though I was immensely disappointed to not finish, I figure there are many things I should be grateful for:
  • I didn't have a mechanical failure or puncture (plenty of others did... I saw people every mile or so crouched by the side of the road trying to fix their bikes)
  • I didn't have an accident, either in training or on the day (there were a couple of nasty crashes on the day, mainly at tight corners. My friend's dad also had a horrible accident during his last training ride before the event, but luckily he's going to be ok)
  • It was a beautiful and warm day, with enough wind to keep cool (conditions were the polar opposite of the 2014 event's post - Hurricane Bertha conditions, which were so bad that the route had to be cut short)
  • I had a wicked time, and the organisers and volunteers took care of me and the other cyclists extremely well - I felt safe and looked after the whole time
The 4.5 hours or so I spent in the saddle where brilliant, and it was a shame to cut the day short - but at least I have lots of positives to look back on!

The ballot for Ride London 2016 opens on Monday 10 August. If you enjoy cycling even in the slightest I definitely recommend entering - just make sure you use a road bike if you get a place!!

Did you participate in or watch Ride London? Have you ever DNF'd (did not finish) in a race?

09 July 2015

A Japanese Adventure... coming soon!

So, it's no secret that I'm quite a big fan of Japan. I've been fascinated with Japanese culture since I was a child (blame it on the Pokemon), and the fascination persisted into adulthood. I studied Japanese art as a post-graduate, and have visited the country a couple of times in the past few years. I had an incredible time there - the country was even more beautiful, quirky and fun than I imagined! If you've been following Foods for Thought for a while, you'll remember that one of my first blog posts was about the country. And my profile pic? That was taken in the beautiful port of Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan.

Basically, I can't get enough of Japan - so I'm going to go and live there for a while! I applied for a handful of seasonal jobs in Niseko, the ski resort that I've gotten to know quite well over my two visits, and which is world-famous for its incredible powder snow. To my amazement (given I have no experience in hospitality/tourism), I've been offered a job for the 2015/16 winter season! I'm so happy and overwhelmed with excitement. I don't think I've ever spent more than 20 days or so out of the UK before - I never did a gap year or anything - so this is quite a big deal for me. But I'm glad that I am doing it now; I think now that I'm a little older and wiser I can really make the most of a trip like this.

Now that I have a job offer I am going to apply for a Working Holiday Visa, which will allow me to stay in Japan for a year. After the winter season is over and I've had my fill of japow, I plan to work my way down through the islands, ending up in Okinawa for the summer. I've never been there but it looks like a tropical paradise! It's known as Japan's answer to Hawaii.

I have so much to sort out before I move to Japan at the end of October! Of course I will document my adventure on here when I get there. In the meantime, I thought I would share some of my favourite photos from my previous trips to Japan.


Fresh mineral water spring near Kutchan, Hokkaido



Canal at Otaru, Hokkaido


View of Mt Yotei from the Niseko slopes



Craft Beer at Harajuku Taprooms, Tokyo


Crab sign, Otaru fish market


An android at The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, Tokyo


A view of the Imperial Palace, Tokyo 

Shinjuku, Tokyo at night

Tokyo's Sky Tree surrounded by real trees

Japan has such a unique mix of natural beauty, ancient traditions, innovative technologies and incredible food and drink. That's why I love it so much! I can't wait to fully immerse myself in the culture.

Have you ever lived abroad? Have you visited Japan before?

07 July 2015

Restaurant Review: Barrafina Adelaide Street

I recently visited Barrafina's new(ish) opening on Adelaide Street - located just off the Trafalgar Square end of the Strand. The original Barrafina on Frith Street was opened about eight years ago by brothers Sam and Eddie Hart (who also own Quo Vadis). Barrafina serves modern Spanish tapas, whilst diners sit at high stools along a bar where they can watch the chefs working their magic. Their new opening on Adelaide Street recently won best restaurant in The National Restaurant awards (as well as picking up the award for best Spanish restaurant). 


The menu at Barrafina.

The menu at Barrafina is divided into various sections, including frituras (fried dishes), cold meats, vegetables, chargrilled dishes and seafood. There are also daily specials. The menu is based on quality ingredients that are prepared expertly but also with simplicity. You can order a couple of dishes here and there as you go along, and they arrive one by one as they are prepared. It's always a good idea to keep an eye on what others are ordering and following suit if the dish looks good!


Fresh produce and the daily specials boards

One thing I always have to have when I go for tapas is the Pimientos de Padron. I'm sure some people probably think they're boring (they are just shallow fried green peppers, sprinkled with sea salt), but they're the quintessential tapas dish in my mind so I usually go for them. Plus the mild thrill of wondering whether you'll get one of the hot, fiery ones turns eating them into a kind of edible game of Russian roulette. I got a couple of hot ones this time so I guess I got lucky/unlucky.


Pimientos de Padron

Another one of my favourite tapas is Stuffed Courgette Flowers. Eating fried courgette flowers is something I was first introduced to during my childhood summer holidays in Umbria, and now whenever I see it on the menu my heart leaps! This one still had the baby courgette attached (so cute!), whilst the flower itself was stuffed with goat's cheese and drizzled with honey. I just love the contrast of the savoury cheese and sweet honey, and the delightfully light crispiness of the flower itself.

Stuffed courgette flowers

Sometimes a small plate just isn't enough. This was the case with the delicious Arroz de Marisco. The rice was cooked in an intensely rich fish stock, had a beautifully creamy texture, like a loose risotto, and was topped with grilled squid and prawns. It was so damn good that we had to order another.


Arroz de marisco

There are some slightly unusual dishes on the menu at Barrafina... such as Milk Fed Lamb's Brain and Ortiguillas (a type of sea anemone). I wasn't brave enough to try either of these, but the Suckling Pig's Ears were safely within my comfort zone. These were deliciously savoury, with a crisp exterior and a nice bit of chew in the middle. They were topped with some deep-fried sage leaves and a mayonnaise dip on the side.


Suckling Pig's Ears

Other dishes we tried included a whole cooked mackerel, some incredibly tender suckling pig, and beautiful English asparagus on a sauce that I think is best described as a crunchy fresh tomato pesto, and topped with cheese shavings. Sadly I'm only human so I had to stop eating at some point, even though I didn't really want to! On the plus side, there are still plenty of dishes left to try next time I go back. 

Having been to both the Frith Street restaurant and now the Adelaide Street, I can safely say that Barrafina produces the best tapas I've experienced outside Spain. Visiting Barrafina always makes me think back to my trip to San Sebastian many years ago when I first experienced real pintxosI strongly recommend trying Barrafina - it's the kind of place you can enjoy sharing lots of different dishes with a small group, but you can also just pop in solo after work (but get there when doors open if you don't want to queue!) and enjoy a couple of plates all to yourself. 

I have a trip to Barcelona planned for September, so this recent trip to Barrafina has made me even more excited about it! Barrafina was very much inspired by the Hart brothers' love of Cal Pep tapas bar in Barcelona. Please comment below if you have any tips (food or otherwise) for my trip!

Have you been to Barrafina? Or do you have another favourite tapas restaurant?

24 June 2015

Restaurant Review: Chicken Shop

Last week a new branch of Chicken Shop opened in Balham. Chicken Shop is the sister restaurant to the just as accurately descriptive Dirty Burger and Pizza East, all of which are owned by Soho House company. It's strange that this exclusive private members club should open a string of restaurants dedicated to the very populist concept of fast food. However, Chicken Shop is not your bog standard chicken shop. All the chickens used are free range and hail from Banham's farm in Norfolk. As a former vegetarian, any restaurant serving free range meat instantly has my attention, as I know I can eat there relatively guilt free.

So as I was saying, Chicken Shop opened its fifth London location in Balham last week. This new opening had been on my radar, but evidently my invitation to the opening night got lost in the post (ahem). On the opening day they were offering a 50% discount on meals. Unfortunately I only realised this two days later whilst making my way to a pre-arranged dinner date at the Tooting branch with Hannah. They do say timing is everything... this time we evidently got it wrong (by 2 days and approximately 1 mile). Nonetheless, it turns out that Chicken Shop is pretty good value, even at full price.

Chicken Shop has a super short and simple menu. Which I generally see as a good thing - I'd rather a restaurant do one thing well than have a menu that's longer than my arm but full of mediocre dishes. The chickens are marinated overnight and then cooked on a rotisserie. Depending on how many of you there are and your hunger levels, you can choose to have a quarter chicken, a half or a whole. Then you can choose from a handful of sides: chipscoleslaw, corn on the cob and a butter lettuce and avocado salad. With a menu that short it doesn't take long to decide. Nor, it turns out did it take long for the food to arrive - I think it was placed in front of us less than 5 minutes after we ordered. This is nothing less than efficient, but I personally prefer a few more minutes to soak up the atmosphere, sip my drink and chat before a meal arrives, but I suppose this is a fast food restaurant. And soon after our arriving there was a queue that led out the door, so I can understand why they want a quick turn around.


Leg, breast, thigh, wing: half a chicken

The chicken was really tasty with its lightly spiced marinade and chargrilled flavour. It was basically what Nando's chicken wishes it was. The skin was nice and crispy too (especially on the wing - yum!) and the meat was mostly succulent, apart from the breast unfortunately. Usually rotisserie chicken succeeds in not being dry because the meat juices are redistributed through the meat as it rotates and cooks. I can only assume that this chicken must have stayed on the rotisserie a few minutes too long. Luckily we were provided with two sauces (hot and smokey) to tackle any drier meat. I used the smokey one which had a good flavour and didn't overwhelm with chilli spice. We also had some mayonnaise on the side which was really tasty... it took me most of the meal to figure out why it tasted different and then I realised it tasted like it had been made with olive oil. Which was kind of unusual, but good. I'm not sure whether the mayo was home made or if it's that new Hellman's they've been advertising on TV. Either way, I liked it.


The works.

The sides impressed too - the crinkle cut fries were crisp, the coleslaw was nice and tangy and not overly doused in dressing/mayonnaise, and the corn on the cob had a delicious garlic butter on it, which had melted and formed little pools between the lightly charred kernels.

When it came to dessert, the menu was just as succinct as the mains, with three choices: deep-filled apple piezesty lemon tart and warm and gooey chocolate brownie. All of which were served with either whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. As a chocolate fiend, the brownie was obvious choice. With ice cream of course.

I was slightly concerned when the waitress mentioned that the brownie had nuts in it, because to my mind chocolate and nuts should be kept entirely separate. I love them both individually, but I just think the world's a better place when the two don't meet. However, my fears were alleviated when I discovered the brownie was full of macadamias, which are, after all, the king of nuts and my favourite. And their smooth texture and creamy taste actually work really well with chocolate.

The brownie was so tempting and delicious that we dove straight in and I forgot to take a photo, so you'll just have to imagine the warm, fudgey brownie with crunchy macadamias studded through it like diamonds, and the creamy vanilla ice cream melting all over the top of it. Sorry about that.

How do you feel about single dish restaurants? Have you tried Chicken Shop / Dirty Burger / Pizza East?




03 June 2015

Ride London training: Getting started with cycling

So in February, this happened:



Ballot success! I'd watched Ride London the last couple of years (it began in 2013, a legacy of the London 2012 Olympics), and had always fancied doing it. I'm not quite sure why, because I am NOT a cyclist. At least I wasn't at the time. I think it was the combination of the incredible route, the freedom of riding down traffic free streets, and the endurance challenge of riding 100 miles that captivated me. I entered the 2014 ballot and was unsuccessful. I entered the 2015 ballot expecting a successive rejection but ended up getting a place!

I was really excited when I found out I had a place. But I also felt slightly sick. I was less scared of the prospect of the endurance element (having done a marathon in October last year, I knew I could push myself to my physical limits), it was more the prospect of having to become a proper cyclist. Or at least get to the point where I could just about pass for one. For a few years now, I've considered myself a runner: so to have to become something else entirely was a bit daunting. Running is so unintimidating because you need very little kit - as long as you have a good pair of running shoes you are good to go. And the only technique you need is the ability to put one foot in front of the other. Cycling is a different matter. You're sharing the road with a lot of vehicles much larger than you, you need to constantly be thinking about signalling and manoeuvring, just as you would do when driving a car. You also need a fair bit of kit to be both safe and comfortable: more than just a pair of shoes. My initial list for the basics I needed to start cycling looked something like this:

Helmet
Lights
Bike lock
Padded shorts
Jersey (with back pocket to store bits & pieces)
Cycling gloves
Cycling shoes
Puncture repair kit
Spare inner tube
Bike cleaning kit

That's just for starters. I still haven't got everything (cycling shoes and cleaning kit, I'm looking at you). Some of the bits and pieces I managed to get quite cheaply (the cycling gloves I bought from Lidl), but it still all adds up. It turns out that cycling is quite an expensive hobby.

Oh and of course you need a bike. Luckily I already had one of those, but whether it was fit for purpose for a 100 mile road race was another matter. I'd had the bike set up to my specifications already (ensuring the seat is at the right level for my height, handle bars are at the right level/angle etc). But it's a mountain bike, so not suitable for such a long ride on the roads. After a bit of research, I quickly realised that the easiest way to get it closer to what I needed was just to get it fitted with road tyres, which are slick and narrower, and so allow me to move more quickly and efficiently on the roads. Thanks to the fabulous Blue Door Bicycles for fitting those for me.

As well as getting the kit I needed to get on with cycling, one of the most important elements for me in the process so far has simply been getting comfortable with being on the bike. I'm trying to get to the point where hopping on a bike feels as natural as going for a run. I'm not sure it will ever feel just as natural, but I'm definitely getting closer.

One thing that has really helped me with feeling comfortable on the bike was some lessons with Cycle Confident, which I would recommend to anyone who's a bit rusty on the bike or not used to cycling on roads. I think they offer free lessons to residents of most boroughs in London. They are one to one lessons and so they can very much tailor them to what you want to work on - be it bike handling, technique or how to ride safely on roads. Living in London you're always going to have to navigate some road unless you live right next to a park.

My first proper training session which I did at the end of May (I'm starting to think I may have started training a bit too late!) looked like this:



A cycle to and from Dulwich Park, with several loops of the park thrown in. I'm hoping to get faster than this first effort, because at 10mph Ride London will take me 10 hours!! Luckily the actual route is a lot flatter than where I live, which is surrounded by hills, so hopefully that will help. The only really big hill on the route to contend with is Box Hill, which takes up just a small proportion of the entire route.

So far it's been quite a steep learning curve, but I've really been enjoying getting out on my bike, especially now that the weather is warmer. For anyone else starting to get into cycling, my top tips would be:

1. Get a bike fit, so that you have the correct riding position - your local bike shop can do this for you

2. Get some lessons, especially if you haven't cycled for a while or aren't used to riding on roads

3. Get the essential kit so that you're comfortable & safe

4. Get on your bike as often as you can: no journey's too short!

I'll aim to post another update before the big day. I'm hoping to go on some group rides for some of my longer training sessions - it would be good to have company and ride with more experienced cyclists.

Are there any other novice cyclists out there doing Ride London this year? How is your training coming along?


12 May 2015

Kitchen Gadgets: Love and Lust

As I currently have fairly limited kitchen space, I can't just let any old gadget onto the kitchen worktop. The kitchen gadgets I love using at the moment have earned their place through their sheer versatility and functionality. What I look for in a gadget is something to save me time in the kitchen, make it a little bit easier for me to create healthy meals, and to encourage creativity and fun. In this post I've highlighted three gadgets that I currently love to use, and three gadgets that would undoubtedly feature in my dream kitchen.

Kitchen Gadgets: Love


NutriBullet

I finally got my hands on a NutriBullet last Christmas, after several months of lusting over photos of other people's colourful smoothies on instagram! The Nutribullet is essentially a high-powered blender. The best thing about this gadget is that you blend your smoothie in the cup you then drink it out of, meaning that the washing up takes literally seconds: so there's no excuse not to kick start your day with a healthy smoothie! A breakfast smoothie is a great way of making sure you've made a start on your 5 a day before you've even left the house. My NutriBlasts usually follow this recipe template: a couple of handfuls of greens (e.g. spinach), one or two pieces of fruit (one of which is usually a banana), a source of healthy fats (nut butter, avocado, milled flaxseeds) plus a superfood powder (I love Organic Burst for these).

The NutriBullet isn't just for smoothies though - I've recently made savoury recipes such as beetroot hummus and spinach pesto using it. This gadget is so versatile that I'm sure it will never be relegated to the back of the cupboard!


Spiralizer

The GEFU Spirelli Spiral Slicer


This is a really fun little gadget - it turns firm vegetables (courgettes, carrots, sweet potatoes) into noodle-like shapes! I like to spiralize courgettes to create courgetti (or zoodles as they're known in the US!) to create a lighter alternative to noodles. Spiralized carrots are a fantastic addition to salads, as they create a different texture to your standard grated carrot. You can do a similar thing with vegetables using a julienne peeler (or just a regular vegetable peeler) but a spiralizer gives a more professional finish and is easier to use. I eat a lot of vegetables, so it's nice to find a gadget that makes it so easy to get creative with vegetables and perhaps serve them in a way you've not had before.

I have a fairly basic spiralizer at the moment - the Gefu Spirelli - but would love to upgrade to an easier-to-use version at some point, as this one can be quite fiddly to use. I think the one Hemsley + Hemsley have released looks fantastic.


Slow Cooker


Tesco 3 Litre Slow Cooker

I'm a big fan of batch cooking. I love to eat good food, but I'm just too busy to cook from scratch every single day, so making a big batch of a one-pot dish on a Sunday is a great way to get me set up for the week ahead. What's so great about the slow cooker is you can throw all your ingredients in, carry on with your day, and come back 6 to 8 hours later and you have a fantastic meal ready, that anyone who didn't know better would think you'd spent hours slaving away over a hot stove to create.

Slow cookers are far more versatile than they look, and are capable of whipping up more than just casseroles. You can cook a whole chicken or joint of meat in it, use it to make stock, and even create cakes!

I have this Tesco slow cooker, which at £12 is undoubtedly the best value gadget I've ever bought. But if you want to splash some cash, you can also get fancier versions, that may have a larger capacity than 3 litres, and a timer so that you can set the slow cooker to turn itself off after a certain number of hours.


Kitchen Gadgets: Lust


Even though I already have quite a number of gadgets, I do still have a wish list for my dream kitchen. Below are some of the items I'm currently lusting after.

Le Creuset
Signature Round Casserole Dish


Le Creuset signature round casserole dish, cool mint

I know, I know, a casserole dish isn't strictly a gadget - but a Le Creuset casserole dish is an essential piece of kit for any kitchen that wants to be taken seriously. Le Creuset make beautiful, hand-crafted cast iron dishes. What I love about these is how versatile they are: you can start off the cooking of your dish on the hob, then put it in the oven to finish cooking, and then serve your dinner straight from the dish at the table. We had an orange Le Creuset dish in my kitchen when I was growing up so the brand is very nostalgic for me: which is part of the reason I'd love to get one for my kitchen now. I'm currently loving the elegance of the new Cool Mint Collection - isn't it just sublime?


Vitamix

Total Nutrition Centre

Vitamix Total Nutrition Centre

I watched a demo of the Vitamix at the BBC Good Food Eat Well Show recently, and quickly realised that these things are just amazing! The Total Nutrition Centre can make everything from frozen desserts to hot soups really quickly. It also works as your usual high-powered blender would, making it perfect for creating smoothies and dips, as well as things you may not usually consider making in a blender, such as nut butters and bread dough. Even though I already have a NutriBullet, it's the prospect of being able to come home after a day's hard graft and make a hot soup in minutes that makes the Vitamix really stand out for me.


Bialetti

Moka Express


Bialetti Moka Express (3 cup)

Bialetti make beautiful stove-top espresso makers that create fantastic coffee (provided of course, that you've put some top quality ground coffee in it!). There's something truly delightful about the way the room slowly fills with the heady aroma of coffee as it brews away. It's the old-fashioned way to brew coffee, but sometimes the tried and tested ways are the best.

Which kitchen gadgets could you not live without? And what gadget is currently topping your most wanted list?

07 May 2015

Race Report: Geneva Half Marathon 2015

London. New York. Tokyo. Those are some of the names that spring to mind straight away when you think of big city marathons. However, there are loads of other great, less well known (and less expensive!) city marathons aside from the World Marathon Majors; and if you're in Europe you're spoilt for choice. I pretty much always see travelling as a way to squeeze in a run (either organised or solo) somewhere new, and that's how I came to sign up for Geneva Half Marathon. My parents moved to Switzerland last year, which has been a great excuse to check out some Swiss races. Switzerland is an amazing destination for outdoor holidays in general, so when I heard my parents were moving there, I immediately had visions of me training like the Brownlees in St. Moritz. Yes, just like that. But much more slowly and far less elegantly.

The Geneva Marathon festival, which took place on the weekend of 2 and 3 May, has the marathon as its key race, as well as other races including the half marathon and a 10km, making up a weekend of races. Over 16,000 runners took part in the 8 events over the weekend, so the city was full of runners. I flew in to Geneva on Saturday as the half marathon was on Sunday morning. Upon arrival at the airport, I grabbed my free train ticket from the machine in the baggage collection area, and then jumped on a train for Geneva city. I wanted to check into the hotel and dump my bags before heading to the race expo in the Jardin Anglais to pick up my race number.



We (I'd roped my Dad in to run too - his first half marathon!) stayed in the Hotel Royal, which was located really near the race expo and finish line. It was also super accommodating to all the runners staying in it. The hotel was offering an extra-early breakfast for runners on the Sunday of the race, which was at a lower cost than the regular breakfast buffet (which is only fair, given you're not going to stuff your face before a race!). They also put aside empty rooms for runners to use the showers in afterwards (as check out time was before most people would finish their race and arrive back at the hotel).They obviously understood the issues facing travelling runners and offered what they could to make the stay as comfortable as possible, and ensure people didn't have to worry about things such as where you could get breakfast that early or where to shower afterwards - so I'd definitely recommend the hotel for that alone.

After checking in, we wandered over to the expo, which was located at the finishing line of the race, just by the shore of the lake. It was a fairly small expo, with some exhibitors selling race kit and advertising other local races. We collected our race numbers, race bags (they give you a specific bag to put your check-in gear in) and our t shirts. You ordered your shirt size in advance, and I opted for small because in the UK even the smallest size is usually about the size of a tent. However, the ladies small here was actually genuinely quite small, so I don't think I'll be wearing mine too often!

We had our race evening supper at Luigia. You can't really go wrong with Italian the night before a race. Unfortunately they didn't take reservations which worried me slightly, as pasta places are always full of runners the night before a marathon. But when you arrive they give you one of those buzzers that lets you know when your table's ready, and you can just wait in the bar in the meantime, so we didn't have to queue outside or anything like you have to in London sometimes! I had a glass of white wine while we waited for our table. I wasn't planning on having a drink, but as we had time to spare and I quite fancied one I thought why not. The night before a marathon I wouldn't drink, but I've done so many halves now (about seven I think) that I'm quite relaxed about them and worry less about getting my preparation 100% right. 

I would usually opt for pasta the night before a race, but the pizza looked so good that I had to go for that. I went for a Stromboli, which had peppers and neopolitan sausage on it. It was delicious, and even the crust was amazing (I hate a bland crust). The restaurant wasn't too far from the hotel so we managed to get back and have a fairly early night before the very early race start the next day - 8.30am!

We got up to have our breakfast around 6.30am the next morning, leaving a good couple of hours to digest before the race start. When I'm staying away from home the night before a race I always bring my own breakfast. Partly so I know I can eat early enough, and partly so that I can eat something I'm familiar with and have eaten during training. My go to is an instant porridge pot, because all you need to do is add hot water from a kettle, so you can make it in even the most basic hotel room or apartment.

It took us about 45 mins to get to the race start. We must have gotten on the tram fairly near its starting point, as we were able to get on easily, but we ended up passing many tram stops that were full of runners who simply couldn't get on because it was so packed. I dread to think how all those runners finally managed to make it to the race. The start was quite far out of the city, and not really running distance before a race. I even saw a couple of runners with their thumbs out, trying to hitchhike to the start! The city really needs to learn from these mistakes and put on extra transport the morning of the marathon.

As forewarned by the weather forecast, it was a rainy day - so waiting around after the obligatory baggage check and toilet stop wasn't much fun, but luckily it wasn't cold. At around 8.15am we made our way to the start line.



The race started on time (as you would expect in Switzerland!). We were in the 2 hour pen, which was quite near the back. The last pen was > 2.10. The cut off time for this race is 3 hours, which is quite tight! It's never taken me 3 hours to run a half, but I think most races are slightly more generous with their time allowance to accommodate for slower runners.

Soon we were running through the countryside, surrounded by fields. I hadn't studied the route map too much so this was a nice surprise, as I expected to be running though a lot of residential areas. There were fields of wheat and canola, and some vineyards too! Some of the paths were dirt paths that had gotten pretty muddy with the rain, so getting wet and muddy was unavoidable.

The water stations were evenly spread out, and I think there were 5 in total, which was plenty. Most offered water and an isotonic drink. There were gels at some stations (I always bring my own so I didn't try them). There were also cut up bananas and oranges to take which was a nice touch! It was great to have real food at the stations as well as 'sports nutrition'.

The last third or so of the race was along Lake Geneva, which was the most scenic part of the route, and by that point the rain had started to subside a little bit. With just 5km to go I realised we could dip in just under 2 hours if we picked up the pace a bit -  so we did just that. The last couple of km take you right past the race finish to do a loop back through part of the city - it was a bit cruel to have the route pass the finish so late in the race, only to continue on into the city. However, the crowds were at their densest in these last few km, which definitely helped keep everyone going. Everyone had their name written their race bib, so it was a great boost to hear people cheering your name!

At last we crossed the line, with an official time of 01:59:57 - just narrowly dipping under that 2 hour mark!



Despite the huge number of runners, moving through the finishing tunnel, grabbing water and a snack (fruit, crackers, cake) and being awarded with a medal was quick and easy, as was our collection of bags, which were located in the underground carpark. It was great the baggage collection was indoors as it meant people could get out of their soaking race kit in the dry, and slip on some fresh layers!

We celebrated with a post-race beer at Les Brasseurs.



And a burger at Holy Cow.



I went for the Smokey Big Cheese and Bacon: Swiss beef, cheese, bacon, BBQ sauce, red onion relish and lettuce. It was incredible, and just what I needed after the race. The chips were also amazing - crisp on the outside, fluffy inside, skin on, and not too skinny!

Once I'd had time to look at the race data (geek that I am), I realised that I'd actually run a negative split, which I've never managed for a half marathon before! I've posted the strava link for those who love a statistic as much as I do.



Have you ever been on a running holiday? Which big city race is at the top of your wish list?