Sunday, 28 August 2011

REVIEW: Penn State Pretzels, Limited Edition

 Those people at Penn State have been sending me more yummy snacks to try. I'm pretty sure that being off work for two weeks, hardly going to the gym and eating lots of tasty treats has not been the best lifestyle move, but I am committed to getting my nose back to the grindstone. Tomorrow. Honest.

So what's the lowdown? We've got Penn State's limited edition Gammon and Mustard flavour pretzels, which according to the press release 'offer a tasty twist on a popular family favourite. Baked, not fried, and still only 131 calories per 30 gram serving, this limited edition and low fat flavour provides a healthier alternative to crisps and other snack foods.'

And I can confirm they are most nommy. I much prefer this flavour to the Worcester Sauce ones that we tried a little while ago. They have the great pretzel crunch and the flavour is not too strong. The gammon flavour is really good and mouth watering. There is only a slight hint of the mustard on your lips, which is good for me because I'm not the biggest fan of mustard. I think the overall taste is quite subtle.

These snacks are right up my street though, and I award them 8 out of 10 Extreme Points. The Boy, on the other hand was surprisingly unimpressed and only gave them 5 Hippy Points as he was not fussed on the flavour. And he likes mustard! The only problem I have really is that these are a relatively healthy snack, compared to others, but as they come in 175g, it's virtually impossible to stop at the recommended 30g serving, so you end up ingesting a load of calories anyway!!

Penn State also sent me a sharing pack of Sour Cream & Chive flavour pretzels. These were my favourite flavour anyway - tangy yet creamy and altogether delicious with a clear and enjoyable chive taste. They even have a very appealing smell, but not overpowering and not too synthetic in feel. Sour cream and chive anything is always my favourite, so I have to give an unsurprising 10 Extreme Points. I am doing everything in my power to avoid sharing these with The Boy, despite it being a sharing size bag. There shall be no Hippy points awarded because they're all mine!

If you want 'em, you can get the limited edition flavour from Waitrose at £1.29 for a 175g bag. Happy Snacking!


Silent Sunday

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Big Art: Sachin Tendulkar

 Today we made more Big Art. This time it was for the Highcross shopping centre, Leicester. It was a departure from the norm, being made out of fabric, saris, beads and wool. This was nice as it ties into Leicester's proud textile heritage and the current industries. All locally sourced materials were used.

It was slightly baffling, but also hilarious that so many people who walked past as we were putting the art work out could be heard muttering 'Art Attack'. I have since discovered that Disney have now bought the rights to that classic show of my childhood and I believe it began airing again today! And with a new presenter, no Neil Buchanan - what a gyp! But that also shatters my dreams of resurrecting Art Attack in my own image some time in the future. I could do that. I bet that new presenter couldn't pull Big Art like this out of the bag.

Anyway, back to today's collage. We made the image of Sachin Tendulkar. Ironic really, since yesterday England sealed a convincing defeat of India, 4-0 in the series AND Tendulkar failed to make his 100th century. However, he is still a great cricketer and will be playing Leicestershire this week so I still standby him as a relevant and topical subject for Big Art!

Mike and I laboured hard for about 9.5 hours to lay this out. There is around 100 yards of fabric, as well as some amounts of beads and wool. The overall image measures 9 x 6 metres, although I cheated a bit and took the blurry crowd background from the top of the image because it would have looked rubbish rendered into this media.
Many thanks to Highcross for putting up with us for the day and giving me a new opportunity to make a huge picture out of lots of the same thing. Thank you to the people from BBC, ITV, the news wire photography guy and the Leicester Mercury for not making me do too many stupid poses for photos and being aware that we had a lot of work to do to get the collage done rather than just talking to them!! Here's hoping we get the chance to do another Big Artwork. Mike was suggesting that a mosaic made out of cars would be cool, and I agree!

Thursday, 18 August 2011

REVIEW: Very Lazy Chicken Chasseur Cooking Concentrate

There's an awful lot of alliteration in the title of this here blog post. Anyway, what have I been cooking today? Well, courtesy of the nice people at Very Lazy Foods, whom I was chatting lazily with on The Twitter, I have been making The Boy eat Chicken Chasseur. It's tough for him.

Very Lazy Foods are famous for their Very Lazy pre-chopped ingredients, such as Garlic and Ginger, favourite of students everywhere. Now they have expanded their range to deal with pastes and cooking concentrates. Obviously, there are quite a lot of these already on the market so I was interested to see how Very Lazy's compared - if indeed it is quicker and/or easier.

As previously mentioned, they sent me the Chicken Chasseur Cooking Concentrate to sample. A few more beers and me saying that will be hilarious. Naturally, being an Extreme Housewife, I had to make life complicated for myself. Instead of having chopped chicken breast all ready to go, I just had one mega-chicken breast, with bone, wing and skin. So, I roasted it first to pull apart and add to the sauce later. This added about 40 minutes to the overall cooking time, which shouldn't be taken into account by anyone, ever, as this is not what Very Lazy suggest you do.

Anywho, while my chicken was cooking, I had the chance to get back to the actual recommended recipe, which is handily written on the card label around the jar of concentrate. I wonder if this extra packaging is strictly necessary, but then they are small jars. Fear not if you lose the little card also, as recipes are available on the website.

I chopped up my onion and mushrooms and once again could not resist adding my own touch of flair with a bit of red pepper. I figured that since the preparation time advertised includes a bit of chopping, doing some pepper at the same time wouldn't make that much difference. It wouldn't be Extreme Housewifery if I played by the rules. The veg, apart from the mushrooms was then fried up with the chicken and the concentrated sauce added and fried off briefly. 

The sauce is thick - it was my rice that's wet!!
The next stage was to add a tin of chopped tomatoes and your mushrooms and that's it! Leave to simmer for 10 minutes or so and a delicious Chicken Chasseur is yours for the enjoying. The label boasts that preparation and cooking time will come to a paltry 20 minutes and I believe this is entirely achievable, if you don't fanny around stripping chicken off the bone like I did. I think this is the real bonus of this cooking concentrate, the prep time is so short. For myself, the ingredients on the label are nothing particularly unusual and the sauce is something I could knock up myself, but if you're in a hurry there are genuine time savings to be had here.

"How does it taste?" I hear you cry! Well, not bad. It's very tomatoey and quite sweet, but other than that a little bit unremarkable. It's not a show stopper, indeed The Boy gave this product only a paltry 4 out of 10 Hippy Points saying it was far too sweet. I am more generous, giving 7 out of 10 Extreme Points because I can imagine the times when knocking up a meal that includes proper ingredients in 20 minutes would be a positive boon in my life.

The sauce cooked out really nicely. It looked a bit dry when I first had all the ingredients in the pan, but as the juice was released from the tomatoes and mushrooms it got quite a pleasing consistency. The smells were good and it certainly filled the gap, which is what you want when you can't be bothered to cook from scratch! I'd be interested to try some of the other products, particularly the Thai Green Curry. I am more familiar with how that is supposed to taste, so I would trust my opinion more! However, for doing exactly what it says on the tin - making a Very Lazy, quick Chicken Chasseur but still with fresh meat and vegetables, I think you could do a lot worse than this product.

What do you think? Have any of you guys in Blogland tried this yet?

Saturday, 13 August 2011

REVIEW: The Village Hotel, Warrington

We have visited The Village Hotel twice in recent months so I thought it was about time I posted a review. Mainly, this was because our most current experience was a vast improvement on the last time - which I think deserves celebrating. However, that is not to say that it is my dream venue!! 

On that basis, I'd like to declare an interest - this is not the sort of place I go to! That's another reason for posting this review - I wanted to see how impartial I can be about something that I wouldn't necessarily choose for myself. 

The Village Hotel is part of the De Vere Hotels' 'Village' chain - 'where cutting edge meets every day affordability'.  This is in contrast to the De Vere hotel chain proper, which is more about luxury; golf courses, spas and the like! We were fortunate enough to spend a weekend at Wokefield Park, which was beautiful! The Village certainly is a step down from this sort of standard, but that is how it is marketed. 

That is not to say that the hotel is shabby at all. The hotel is just outside of Warrington town centre and boasts a huge car park, so no issues on that score. The hotel has a surprisingly large array of facilities, including a pool, gym and health and beauty suite. There is a bar and a number of restaurants as well as private hire rooms with a private bar, which is where we went for the meal and entertainment evening. The decor is minimalist and classic, which gives a nice clean feel. However, there are slight signs of wear - e.g. the checkerboard dancefloor was awkwardly stuck to the floor with some gaps, scuffs and breaks - no doubt through the heavy use it gets!!

We visited on a 'party night' - Soul & Motown night to be exact.  For £24.95 per person, this includes a three course dinner, live entertainment and then a disco and late bar until 1am.

Cream of Unidentifiable Soup
This is the sort of thing people go to for family parties; milestone birthdays, hen nights, that sort of thing. For £24.95 I expect a pretty reasonable meal and some pleasant entertainment. 

As with our last visit, the first course was soup. The first observation that strikes me here is that for the ticket price I would expect at least two or three options for each course, but apparently not. The soup tasted fine, however we couldn't for the life of us figure out what it was! We were leaning to either cream of asparagus or cream of leek... I found it quite salty, but The Boy didn't think this was the case at all. Served with a warm roll, this course was pleasant enough. However, a printed menu card would be useful to help identify your meal...

 The next course was a chicken dish, served with rice, a sauce (brown, but possibly not gravy??) and a selection of vegetables and salad. It was tasty and filling and for this reason I really wanted to highlight The Village. This is a HUGE improvement on the last time I visited. We were given a poor imitation of a roast dinner, with miniscule portions, bone dry chicken and rock hard vegetables. It was an absolute shambles and gave us cause to complain. So hats off to The Village for such a significant improvement in quality since our last visit. I think the only improvement I would suggest on this course would be more sauce (or a sauceboat on the table) as there was so much rice it was getting a little dry towards the end.

We finished with a cheesecake which was massive! So, if you like your desserts then this is the place for you. I was totally stuffed after finishing this and I enjoyed the flavour of the vanilla cheesecake topping.

After the meal, they break out the entertainment. Live singers with a backing tape, followed by the disco. If you're out with friends, you've picked the night when they're playing your favourite kind of choons then what's not to love! Do nip to the toilet during the slightly cringeworthy recognition of the birthday boys/girls, hens, stags etc. though!!!

Hen do with frightening masks making them look a bit surreal!
For me, this is a mediocre 4 out of 5 Extreme Points, but I recognise that for someone who's more into this sort of set up it would easily be a 7 or 8. I found that, for Warrington, the drinks are staggeringly overpriced and on the whole not that great quality (flat lager, served by disinterested staff). However the waiters and waitresses are friendly and helpful, the atmosphere is good and the food is, well... edible. 

For the price, I would definitely recommend visiting a Bistro Live instead if you have one nearby. They are cheaper, and regularly provide special web offers which makes it cheaper still. You get pretty much the same deal, except they include a quiz in the entertainment, but the food is of a really high quality, with a vast menu selection - usually 4 or 5 choices for each course. If you've been invited to a do at The Village, you'll enjoy yourself, but your wallet will be left substantially lighter. If you're organising it yourself, I'd consider choosing another venue.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Transforming the Garden: The Raised Bed Saga

 I came home from work the other day and the boy was digging up the lawn. It is rubbish and bumpy and makes the hover mower not hover. I can't blame him for having had enough, I couldn't even push the mower over it.

We had been talking about it for a while, and seeing my mother in laws shiny new (and huge) vegetable plot recently made us both a little jealous and actually pull our fingers out and get on with it.

Once the lawn started coming up, it was clear that the remaining conifers needed to go also. Et voila, we had a much bigger feeling garden! The conifer side will eventually be dug out into another plain border, but after the epicness of this project, we decided to leave the turf pile on it for now (the Sod Sofa) and deal with that next year.

When everything had been dug up and dutifully piled in piles, there was a short pause while I got everything together to be delivered for phase 2... This is where the real hard work begun. Although digging over the rock hard lawn area was tricky in its own right...

 Raised bed number 1 was constructed.
 Shortly followed by raised bed number two.
 Surprisingly, raised numero tres followed next.
 And the weekend screwing frenzy was augmented by raised bed number four, or the 'Big Mama' as we haven't been calling it. You'll notice at this point I was also treating the wood. And so, with heavily blistered hands, aching backs and general weariness of the overall body, we were finished and I was able to start my titivating.
 The final result looks amazing! The Boy has also constructed a small shelf out of bits of our old bench for plants to go in the brick BBQ that we haven't go a grill for. I am so pleased. Essentially, apart from the digging over, we've got all of this done in three days. We've moved a tonne of gravel and a tonne of topsoil and somehow, I managed to carry a 125l bag of compost from B&Q to the bus stop. The Boy met me off the bus with a skateboard and we rolled it home, it was the only sensible thing to do.

And is it all worth it? Yes, I have a garden I can be proud of, with more room for growing. And we love our veg. Here is tonight's celebratory tea (which we ate outside of course) - a tuna pasta bake with courgettes and broad beans from the garden. All this and more can now be looked forward to from our beautiful, and hopefully prolific garden. Salut.

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