Sunday, 27 January 2013

5:2 diet: Cutting down portion sizes

It is, of course, not just what you eat on a fast day but how much you eat of it. 500 calories a day (or 600 if you’re a lucky male) is not a lot so every calorie counts.

Surprisingly one of the easiest ways to do that is to cut down on the recommended portion size on ready-made products. The manufacturers of big 600ml tubs of soup, for example, assume you’re going to divide the pot between you. In fact you can divide it into three - 200ml is quite enough for a bowlful, especially if you add a splash of water to thin it out. (Most ready-made soups, I find, are too thick and gloopy*)

40g of porridge oats clocks up 138 calories. Reduce that to 30g - and allow yourself a teaspoon of cinnamon sugar which at least makes it palatable - and you’ve only used up 123.

The recommended 75g helping of rice (190g cooked weight) amounts to a scary 260 calories. Weigh out 50g of cooked rice - enough to bulk out a meal - and it’s an affordable 56.

Of course it doesn’t work with everything. 20g of cheese - hardly worth having which is why I rarely bother with it on fast days - is still ridiculously calorific but you get the point . . .

*While on the subject of soup - watch out for the sugar content. Sugar in soup? Absolutely. I was perplexed as to why Waitrose own brand soups were so much more calorific than the Tideford soups that my local health food shop stocks. (Their tomato, red pepper and lentil soup, for example, is only 52 calories for 200g.) The answer seems to be that most contain sugar.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Katie Stewart's apricot teabread

I was particularly sad to hear of the death of cookery writer Katie Stewart the other day as her books were a bible as I was learning to cook. (No, please don't work out how old that makes me.) Other people on Twitter clearly felt that way too so we had a bit of a Katie Stewart love-in last weekend when we all cooked a favourite recipe.

Mine was a teabread, the sort of cake that's gone out of fashion but which was both delicious and economical because you could slice it so thinly. It's also incredibly easy to make - a bit like a boiled fruit cake.

At the time I used to follow recipes religiously, terrified that even the slightest deviation would result in disaster but emboldened by having written a few cookery books of my own I realise they're only a guideline. Revisiting the recipe I cut down the sugar and ground cloves and would certainly use mixed spice instead of the three different ground spices Katie recommends if I didn't already have them in my storecupboard.

The central ingredient, apricots, has also changed in that unsulphured apricots are much more widely available than when the recipe was written and also tend to be sold in a ready-to-eat version. That admittedly makes the teabread less colourful but improves the flavour. (They were also a £1 a pack cheaper in my local health food shop.) You do however need slightly less liquid than the original because you don't need to rehydrate the apricots - I've made that adjustment in my version below.

Makes 1 large loaf

225g dried apricots, preferably unsulphured
200-250ml water depending whether your apricots are read- to-eat or not (less if they are)
150g caster sugar (unrefined caster sugar for preference)
75g butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
225g (8oz) plain flour
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 level tsp salt
1/2 level tsp ground cinnamon, 1/4 level tsp ground cloves and a pinch of nutmeg or 1 tsp mixed spice

You will also need a lightly oiled 9 x 5 x 3 inch (2lb) non-stick loaf tin. If you haven't a non-stick tin, line it with baking paper

Snip the apricots in small pieces (easiest with kitchen scissors) and place in a large saucepan. Add the water, sugar and butter and place over a low heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar then bring up to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Draw the pan off the heat and allow to cool until the hand can be comfortably held against the side of the pan. Beat in the egg.

In the meantime preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C/Gas 4. Sift the flour with the bicarbonate of soda, salt, cinnamon, ground cloves and nutmeg (or mixed spice). Tip the sifted flour mixture into the apricots and beat thoroughly.

Transfer the mixture into the loaf tin and spread evenly. Place in the centre of the oven and bake for an hour until well risen and firm. Leave in the tin for 10 minutes then tip out of the tin and cool on a wire rack. Serve sliced with butter or on its own. It also freezes well.

The recipe came from a rather charming collection called Katie Stewart Cooks which accompanied an ITV series and cost all of 40p. You might also enjoy her The Times Cookery Book and the more recent Katie Stewart's Good Food.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

5:2 Easy spicy 5 vegetable stew

Looking at the arctic scene out of the window this morning I must admit the last thing I wanted to do was fast but having worked out today was the only day I could fit in over the next 3 days I reckoned I'd survive provided everything I ate was hot.

I was thinking vegetable curry but it somehow morphed into a soupy stew. A rather more calorific one than I'd intended as I hadn't checked out the calories in parsnips or Jerusalem artichokes which have almost as much as potatoes. But it still came in well within the daily allowance especially as I only had just over a third of it.

Dieting or not it's a really good frugal recipe too as you can use whatever veg you have to hand - even a small potato wouldn't be a problem though I might skip the artichokes and use swede instead if I was in danger of exceeding my daily limit.

I don't think tomato would add much unless you had a couple of squishy tomatoes you needed to use up (skin and chop them first. Leave the seeds in - they're fine). Celery or fennel would be good as would a handful of shredded greens or spinach chucked in towards the end. If it wasn't a fast day you could add chickpeas or lentils or serve it with naan. Or tweak the seasoning and turn it into a couscous.

The most significant thing though was that I didn't use any oil. The veg are just boiled which keeps the calorie count down and speeds up the recipe to about 15-20 minutes. Probably 5 minutes in a pressure cooker, which I still have to master . . .

Spicy 5 vegetable stew (376 calories)
Serves 2-3 at 125 calories a bowlful

1 medium onion (100g) 31 calories
1 medium carrot (105g) 30 calories
1 medium parsnip (105g) 69 calories
1 medium to large turnip (150g) 47 calories
4 Jerusalem artichokes (145g) 105 calories
1 tbsp korma curry paste (25g) 55 calories
750ml hot vegetable stock made with 1tbsp Marigold vegetable bouillon powder - 36 calories
A handful of chopped coriander leaves (10g) 3 calories
Salt and pepper

Peel and cut up the veg into chunky pieces. (Do the artichokes last as they discolour.) Put them in a saucepan or casserole, cover them with the hot stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer until the veg are almost tender. Some will cook faster than others - it doesn't matter. You can mush them up to thicken the stew.

Weigh out the curry paste, mix it in a bowl with 2 tbsp of the stock you've cooked the veg in and add it back to the pan. Reheat and simmer until the veg are fully cooked (another few minutes). Add the chopped coriander and season to taste. That's it!

PS A less successful experiment was unsweetened porridge made entirely with water and a sprinkling of cinnamon. I know the Scots eat it that way (except for the cinnamon) but to me it tasted like soggy oat-flavoured cardboard. I think next time I'd have to include a teaspoon of sugar which would be only 16 calories. Not a disaster.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

A couple of great frugal blogs

I don't want you to think I've entirely forgotten the main point of this blog which is about eating frugally, not just fasting on the 5:2. And I've recently discovered a couple of blogs that do that job incredibly well.

One is A Girl called Jack written by a single mum who feeds herself and her son on £10 a week. Ten pounds! It's also far more than a food blog but covers politics, volunteering and other aspects of life in Southend. Her latest post is on a delicious-sounding fig, rosemary and lemon bread she made for 26p. And there's a great post about how the price of supermarket basics is sneaking up.

The other is written by a guy who calls himself The Skint Foodie which is more food-focused but is particularly interesting in that he's used the blog to overcome his mental health issues, an admission he makes in this admirably frank post.

It's also beautifully written - how's this for a line? "I turned love into hate, respect into pity, affection into disdain."

And he ends up. "At the heart of the concept of recovery in mental health is the idea that for anyone to have any kind of meaningful life these three elements must be present: hope, control and opportunity. If you're an alcoholic mentalist on the dole those things tend to be in short supply. Writing this blog and volunteering have, in the last year, given me a glimpse of all three."


PS He also has admirable taste. There are many good, simple recipes on the blog like this Indian takeaway substitute.

Friday, 11 January 2013

What to drink on the 5:2 diet

Given that you’ve only got 500 calories to play with it seems a bit of a waste squandering a quarter of them on a glass of wine - or any alcoholic drink. But the diet is all about choice so if that’s your special treat you might want to know exactly how much your favourite tipple will set you back.

The good news is that a 125ml glass of champagne only tots up 95 calories but if you’ve a taste for full-bodied South American reds or shiraz at, say, 14.5% and you drink a ‘normal’ 175ml glass of it, that’s 140 calories gone*. A double whisky is 122 calories. Add a non-diet mixer and that’s 178 calories. Makes you realise where all those excess pounds come from, eh?

I don’t bother with alcohol at all when I’m fasting but a food writer friend who saves up her calories to enjoy in the evening likes a gin and diet tonic. A single measure of a 37.5% gin like Gordon’s with a low cal tonic comes to just 54 calories - almost exactly the same as the square of dark chocolate I treat myself to if I have calories to spare. Horses for courses.

Another option is a small dry fino sherry - if you can stick to 50ml (a small glass makes that seem more) it’s only 49 calories a glass.

It’s when it comes to non-alcoholic options that it gets tricky. Most fruit juices and soft drinks are in fact quite high in calories. 200ml of Copella apple juice for example adds up to 92 calories. However tomato juice is roughly half that at 44 calories per 200ml. Add a dash of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco or a pinch of celery salt and a slice of lemon and you’ve got yourself a non alcoholic cocktail (a Virgin Mary) that doesn’t make you stand out in a crowd.

I’m not mad about diet mixers except for the Fever-tree range which, although they’re higher in calories than, say, Schweppes, don’t have that slightly metallic taste you get from most low cal mixers. They do a Naturally Light Tonic Water (20.5 cals per 100ml) and a Naturally Light Ginger Beer (24.8 calories per 100ml). With ice, 150ml gives you a decent drink

Tea has been my lifeline during the 5:2 diet and, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been exploring different loose leaf teas at no calorie gain at all - provided you don’t take milk or sugar. I don't take sugar, except occasionally in mint tea and have pretty well weaned myself off milk over the last six weeks. Herbal infusions are also calorie free. I particularly like a fennel infusion with a slice of lemon.

Milk is even more of a factor when it comes to coffee. If you take it black, which I invariably do on a fast day, a small black coffee is just 2 calories though a black Americano which I often drink when I’m out I was rather surprised to find was 15 according to And a double espresso is 10.

An instant coffee with skimmed milk (bleugh) will set you back 6 but a large latte can mount up to 180-190, over a third of your daily allowance. So no visits to Starbucks on a fast day - or on any other day so far as I’m concerned.

PS the Bristol-based producer of an interesting Japanese-style soft drink called Koji picked up on this post and offered to drop a couple of bottles round. There are two flavours, Lemon and Ginger, which would do duty for white wine and Mandarin and Cranberry which looks much like a rosé. I find the latter too sweet and too obviously orangey though I can imagine it going with spicy food like a curry. However the slightly herby lemon and ginger is really rather delicious - so much so that I demolished the rest of the (330ml) bottle. 

The best thing about them though is that they're only 49 calories a bottle which would make a 165ml  glassful just 25 calories. Perfect for those who like a drink at the end of the working day.

At the moment you can mainly find them in Bristol shops, cafés and restaurants (Chandos Deli apparently stocks them) but they've just delivered to a number of London wholesalers so you should be able to find them there. And they're also planning to sell them online. Check out their website for updates on stockists

*The unit calculator on is particularly helpful for working out the calorie count of different glasses of wine depending on their alcoholic strength.

Image © Bratwustle -

Monday, 7 January 2013

Smoked haddock, roast tomatoes and parmesan

A recipe - if you can call it that - which scores on a number of fronts. Easy, only 3 main ingredients, suitable for the 5:2 diet and ideal for those of you who like to keep Monday meat-free

It features smoked haddock which is much more interesting than the unsmoked variety but as low in calories. 100g - less than half the pack I bought - totalled just 85. I managed to put away and freeze 2 other portions which made the £3.71 outlay seem relatively modest.

I baked it with sliced tomatoes and a sprinkling of parmesan which is one of the most 5:2 friendly cheeses because you don’t need that much. In fact it didn’t really register on the scales which confused me when it came to working out the calorie count. In theory 1 tablespoon would be 5g and therefore 22 calories but this can’t have been more than 1g. I’ve adjusted the recipe to make it slightly more cheesy

Serves 1
133 calories

100g undyed smoked haddock (85)
2 medium tomatoes, sliced (20)
1 rounded tbsp parmesan (5g) (22)
a pinch of thyme or zatar (optional)
freshly ground black pepper
6 puffs low cal oil spray (6)

Preheat the oven to 190°C. Squirt the base of your baking dish so the tomato and fish don’t stick. Lay half the tomato slices on the base of the dish and season with black pepper and thyme or zatar, if using. top with the fish, skin side downwards and lay the remaining tomato slices on top. Season, sprinkle with parmesan and spray with the remaining oil. Add 3 tbsp of water to the baking dish then bake for15-20 minutes until the fish is cooked through and the cheese topping lightly browned. Serve with steamed or boiled broccoli (80g = 27 calories) or some new potatoes if you're not on a fast day.

Friday, 4 January 2013

5:2 diet: What you can (and what you shouldn’t really) eat on a ‘feed’ day

The theory of the 5:2 or ‘fast’ diet - and what sells it to those of us greedy mortals who habitually struggle with their weight - is that you can eat anything you like on the 5 days you don’t fast.

Obviously it’s not quite like that. If you made up for the calories you’d missed the preceding fast day by pigging out on giant pizzas, outsize cheeseburgers and triple-cooked chips - or even multi-course Michelin-starred meals - you might still lose a bit but it wouldn’t do your health much good.

On the other hand nothing is actually out of bounds. Not pasta, not cake, not cheese, not wine, not all the delicious things you fantasise about on a fast day. I’ve eaten fried chicken and tantanmen ramen  (above at Bone Daddies) on a feast day - a term I prefer to the somewhat pedestrian 'feed' day - and haven’t put on a pound.

You need to read Dr Michael Mosley’s* book which I’ve reviewed here to understand why this is. But the book also contains a startling and slightly unwelcome revelation - that Mosley normally skips lunch on a non-fasting day. (Pause while you absorb this . . . No Lunch)

Maybe he’s been doing it long enough for such an extended period without food to become the norm but it wouldn't do for me. On the other hand since I started the diet just under six weeks ago my appetite has undoubtedly reduced. If I go out to lunch I generally don’t want to eat again. That doesn’t obviously mean I don’t. But I needn’t.

So how do I deal with feast days? I’ve evolved a simple formula. One thing less. Meaning I try and ditch one element of the meal that I would previously have eaten - or drunk. So no bread before the meal starts. No second helpings. One biscuit instead of two. One or (let's be honest) two glasses of wine instead of three or four. A little less salad dressing than I used to use. Well, that's the aim anyway. You get the picture.

I never had a hugely sweet tooth so desserts are not a problem. Unless I need to taste them out of politeness (at someone’s house) or for professional reasons (reviewing a restaurant) I don’t have them. But I could if I wanted to and that’s why this diet works.

But probably the most useful thing I’ve learnt is DON’T EAT WHEN YOU’RE NOT HUNGRY. Simple but it comes as a revelation.  

How do you deal with feast days, fellow 5:2 fasters?

* Dr Mosley being the clever guy who invented the diet.