Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Look! No Hands!

I know I'm a good five years too late, but for the last 2 months I've been reading the Game of Thrones books. I'm currently 200 pages from the end of the final book (sob) so there's been well, a lot of reading over the last few months (I think I worked out it would take me about 80 hours to read them all?!). 
Now as all book nerds know, finding a comfortable position to read in can be a challenge. We wriggle, we writhe, we move around, roll over. Anything. And we know no matter what happens we'll be uncomfortable again in five minutes.
And even if you're not a big reader, look me square in the eye and tell me you've never tried to watch something in bed and dropped your iPad on your face?
Yep, we've all been there.
Enter the iBeani...
The iBeani is well, a little beanbag tablet stand. It fits any device, in any position and you can use both hands! You don't need a hard surface, so it's perfect for the sofa or in bed.
It isn't just for tablets either. I tried it out with my Kindle and also with a recipe book - anyone who cooks regularly from recipe books know the frustration of your recipe book closing while you're in the middle of cooking!
The iBeani comes in a variety of colours and styles, but I went for simple black (which I kind of regret to be honest - I considered leopard print but I wasn't sure if Phil would appreciate that...). 

I've been using it mostly for reading on the sofa, but I've been trying to think of creative ways to use it. Here's what I've come up with so far -
  • On the beach (does anyone else find lying on the beach with a book really uncomfortable? I couldn't test this out as we already know Manchester doesn't have a beach but the iBeani website suggests that it can be used as a travel pillow so I'm tempted to take it to Spain with me in a few weeks!)
  • In the bath (now, I was a bit scared to try this, but depending on the layout of your bathroom could you put it on the toilet lid or counter? I don't know - I don't like baths, but I do hear of people saying they watch things on their iPad/laptop while in the bath so I bet this would work!)
  • While cooking from a website or blog on your phone or tablet
  • For doing a workout from Youtube 
  • Reading Kindle while drying your hair (I've actually tried this one! I get so bored drying my hair...)
My only criticism of the iBeani is I think it's a little bit pricey. It retails at £24.99 (though it is currently £19.99) which I think is quite expensive compared to other tablet stands. BUT it does work much better than anything I've tried before, and they are handmade in the UK and there's free shipping.

Now, I'd better get back to Game of Thrones...

Monday, 30 May 2016

This is Manchester.

I grew up less than 15 miles from Manchester City Centre.
Weekends as a teenager spent in Afflecks Palace and in dirty clubs with sticky floors and vodka Red Bull for £1.
When I was at uni I naturally told anyone who asked that I was from Manchester.
But my love affair with the city didn't really begin until a few years ago.

I came back from uni in Birmingham to a city I no longer knew.
Those sticky-floored clubs were filled with a new generation of 19 year olds and I didn't know my place.
I missed Birmingham like crazy - I missed my time living in America even more - and I had no love for this place I once proudly called home.

It was only when I met a boy with a flat in the Northern Quarter that I fell head over heels. 

Today whenever we go to a new city I find myself saying "it's great, but it's not Manchester."
There is no other city I would rather live in.

Of course living in the city centre is expensive. Of course our flat is small and cramped. Of course it's loud and busy and chaotic.
But I wouldn't change it for the world.

Manchester has everything I could possibly need.
More restaurants than I could ever eat at, with new ones opening every week.
More bars than I could ever need.
The museums, the book shops, the parks, the theatres.
There are new corners and new places and new experiences to find every day.

But the problem with living in a city is you so rarely do the things you would do when visiting somewhere new.
You don't look on Trip Advisor to find the best things to do. You don't save the highest rated restaurants or check which walking tour is the best.
You're popping out for milk instead of going to a museum. You're curling up watching Game of Thrones when the sun is shining while tourists are learning more about your city than you could ever know. You're at a loose end when someone asks "what should I do in Manchester?" and finding yourself starting sentences with "I've never done it but..."

So this weekend I decided to change all that.

Whenever I go to a new city I have to do a walking tour. It's my favourite way of getting my bearings, exploring a city properly and deciding what I want to do with the rest of my trip.
So first stop was a walking tour.

At 11am we walked less than 100 metres from our flat to join the Free Manchester Walking Tour. It was strange to be doing a tour in our own city - we even walked past our building and found out Noel Gallagher lived  in the building next door to ours in the early 90s and it's where he wrote most of the songs on Definitely Maybe. I was surprised by how much I didn't know and how much I learned. So many buildings that I walk past every day on my way to work that are filled with history that I didn't even know about. 

I took my camera out and snapped some photos along the way. I won't give away too much of what I learned on the tour because you should definitely do it if you're ever in Manchester...
I walk past this statue every day on my way home from work! I think references to Vimto went over the heads of the non-Brits in our tour group!
The view from behind my building

I used to work next to this building - I never noticed that every floor is designed in a different style

My old lunchtime haunt - Manchester's Central Library

The Midland Hotel, visited by Winston Churchill, allegedly coveted by Hitler, where Rolls and Royce first met, and where Posh and Becks had their first date!

The Free Trade Hall - where the first public meeting on women's suffrage was held

The Town Hall - which apparently is often used in films and TV because it closely resembles the Palace of Westminster
Yep we have a statue of Lincoln. Here's why.
The Royal Exchange theatre is one of my favourite places in Manchester - it's where Phil asked me to be his girlfriend!
A very busy Exchange Square where we finished our tour
I was a little bit disappointed that our tour didn't cover the Northern Quarter - my favourite area of Manchester, but we had a walk around there after, and I snapped this photo of a recent piece of street art.

To carry on our theme of the best of Manchester, we had lunch at the quite-new Alabama's All-American Eatery - currently the highest rated restaurant in Manchester!

The place itself is very cool - it definitely looks and feels like an American diner! I have to admit, there weren't a lot of vegetarian options and I was reluctant to pay £7 for an omelette. My mac and cheese was a bit disappointing, but Phil enjoyed his banana pancakes! It's another one off my list of places to eat in Manchester though!
Finally, we had one more thing to cross off - the highest rated thing to do in Manchester - the John Rylands library. This is a little bit embarrassing, but I used to run down Deansgate on a weekly basis and never noticed this huge gothic building in the middle of the shops. I've heard amazing things but I'd never been inside. It's also free, so we had no excuse!
The building is absolutely incredible inside and out. It's a strange mix of an ultra-modern entranceway and an amazingly anachronistic interior.
There are still loads of things I want to do before we move out to buy a house next year. I have a list of all the places I want to eat, museums I want to visit, experiences I want to have. There's just so much to do here. I could never be bored.

I'll end this post as Josh ended his tour.
Manchester has everything except good looks.
Manchester has everything except a beach.
This is Manchester. We do things differently here.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Life Lately

Life has been good lately. Since the marathon I've had an almost overwhelming amount of free time. It's amazing how much time you have when you're not spending a dozen hours a week running, or preparing to run, or recovering from running. I've actually had time to relax. Or at least try to. I have a difficult relationship with free time, and find relaxing makes me feel very guilty. So I've done my kind of relaxing. Baking. Making plans. Reading. Organising. And even watching some TV.

I've been able to have weekends away without worrying about missing runs. I've been able to make plans midweek and have plans for Sundays instead of spending them in a daze. I've been able to work away without worrying about missing my run because of a 7am train.

That's not to say I'm glad that marathon is over. I've well and truly got the bug. I've applied for a London Marathon place for 2017 and if I don't get one I'm considering the new Birmingham marathon next year. I'm already signed up for another half marathon later this year, and plan at least a couple more next year. I missing training more than I could ever have expected, but I am enjoying having time to enjoy other pursuits.

Slipping into the new routine that a new job brings has been surprisingly easy. I thought I would resent my near-hour commute after being able to walk to work for the last year, but I enjoy my alone time to read on my bus journey. I'm still in the early stages of figuring out my job, but for the first time I feel like I actually know stuff and I actually have expertise and knowledge that other people don't. It's terrifying and exciting and strange and I'm excited to have projects to really get my teeth into soon.

I've been travelling a lot lately. Some trips for business. Some for pleasure. We had two days away in Liverpool last Bank Holiday weekend where we stayed with Phil's grandparents in the Wirral. We spent hours chatting with them, went for dinner with friends, went to the Beatles Museum in the torrential rain and two hours later went on a bus tour and ate ice cream in the sun. It was wonderful. This weekend I'm planning for us to do a "tourist" day in Manchester - a walking tour, a museum, lunch somewhere new. I love this city more than I could ever explain and I'm excited to do some of the things I've been meaning to do for years.

I've also been away for work a lot. Newcastle twice, Yorkshire, London and three days away in Canterbury. I'm in Statford next month. I've never travelled for work before! It's exciting to be away for a few days and see a new place. I went for a run both days I was in Canterbury, (and got spectacularly lost) but it definitely meant I saw a bit more of the city than I would have seen just sat in meetings.

I've still been running. Last week I got a parkrun PB (25:36) and this weekend I ran my third Great Manchester Run. As you might know, I went to see my friend run GMR three years ago and decided the next day to sign up. And that was how I started my amazing running journey. It's always had a special place in my heart. I've been struggling to recovery fully from injuries I picked up before and during the marathon, but I've finally felt fit again, and was over the moon to finish the race in 54:47 - a 4.5 minute PB and my first 10K in under 55 minutes. It was only a year ago I ran my first 10K in under an hour at last year's GMR. I was absolutely thrilled.
My Mum the Great Manchester Run too! I'm very proud of her running her first 10K.

On Tuesday Phil and I started Insanity Max 30. We don't have enough room in our flat so we have to tag team. I do it first and then when I'm done I go get Phil for his workout. The plan is Insanity Max 30 three days midweek then running at the weekend. I'm excited! I've missed Shaun T.

We've been to the theatre (An Inspector Calls at the Lowry), to the football (England v Turkey at the Ethiad on Sunday), to the grilled cheese sandwich place in the Northern Quarter I've wanted to go to for ages. 

Life lately has been good.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

What I wear for work

I mentioned a few weeks ago that my new job means I'm back in workwear. Jeans are reserved for the weekends, and I'm back in white shirts and blazers and ballet flats.
I really thought it would bother me - I can admit that over the last, well, maybe even the last year of my old job, my outfits were usually whatever I could grab at 7.55am before leaving the house, which meant I wore jeans at least 80% of the time. I was worried about how much I would need to spend to restock a working wardrobe, and whether I could get away with wearing ballet flats with pencil skirts due to my short legs.

I have to be a bit more organised, but as you probably know by now, I love being organised. I plan my outfits at the start of the week in my phone, which means in the morning (or the night before) I just have to put everything together. As I've found with the 30 for 30 challenges I've done, having limited options makes it so much less overwhelming and I've finding I'm being way more creative with the items I have.

That's not to say I've been in any way limited. I wore workwear for over a year at my first job out of uni, and have dozens of outfit photos through this blog from that time. I also have a huge collection of blazers, shirts, pencil skirts and trousers from those days that have been left forlorn for the last couple of years.

So in fact, I've actually loved wearing workwear again. I've been trying to snap photos of my outfits as much as possible before leaving the house and I've been really enjoying the challenge. Here's what I've been wearing:

jumper - Zara, trousers - Marks and Spencer, flats - Dorothy Perkins

jacket - Next, shirt - Miss Selfridge, trousers - New Look

shirt - Warehouse, skirt - Warehouse

jumper - Zara, trousers - Marks and Spencer

dress - Clothing at Tesco, shirt - Miss Selfridge

shirt - Boohoo, trousers - Marks and Spencer, shoes - New Look

shirt - Glamorous, trousers - Topshop, blazer - Zara

dress - Next, blazer - Zara

shirt - Glamorous, blazer - Zara, trousers - New Look

shirt - Warehouse, trousers - ASOS, shoes - New Look

shirt - Boohoo, blazer - New Look, trousers - New Look, flats - New Look

shirt - Very, skirt - Warehouse, coat - Zara

jumper - Topshop, trousers - Marks and Spencer

I'm sure I'll do another one of these posts in a few weeks with more work outfits - unless I just cycle back through this selection again!

Here's hoping I continue to enjoy wearing workwear!

Charlotte x

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Cookbook review: Keep it Vegan

We all have our vices.
For some it's drink or drugs or food, or handbags or shoes or dresses.
For me, it's recipe books.
I love them.

For Christmas last year I got 6 new ones. For my birthday I got 5.
I have 4 pre-ordered and one hanging out in my Amazon basket, waiting for me to cave.

It's not just about cooking from them, although that is obviously a huge part.
I read them like novels, flicking through them, reading the steps. 
I trawl the internet for reviews on blogs and on forums. Trying to decide which recipes to try next.

It's a real love, and one I have no intention of giving up.

I've talked before about how I've tried to manage this addiction, and between January and April I didn't buy any new recipe books, and I blogged the recipes I'd made from my current books. But when I'm looking to buy a new recipe book (or justify a recent purchase!) I tend to look to forums and blogs for real reviews.

One of my favourite blogs is Cookbook a Month, where three friends work through the same cookbook over the space of a month and blog about it. I considered doing something like this for my blog, but I decided I didn't want to feel so restricted.

So instead what I am going to do is review my existing recipe books, based on the recipes I've tried. If I love reading about other people's experiences with recipe books, maybe someone else will enjoy this too!

When it comes to reviewing recipe books, here are the things I care about:

  • How easy are the ingredients to get hold of?
  • How much implied cooking knowledge is there?
  • How cheap are the ingredients?
  • How easy at the recipes to cook?
  • How time consuming are the recipes?
Also, I'm going to apologise now for photos. Photos will undoubtedly have been taken right before eating, when I'm tired and hungry and just want to take a photo taken before Phil starts asking, "can we start yet?". So I'm not going to win any food photography awards in these reviews..

For my first book, I'm going to be reviewing Aine Carline's Keep it Vegan.

Keep it Vegan

You probably already know this, but I am not vegan (I am pescatarian though). However, I really love buying vegan recipe books purely because they give me new ideas and because they are often much more creative with the things I love - vegetables and beans and lentils.
I asked for this book for my birthday after reading some really great reviews, and when it arrived I spent my birthday evening flicking through and writing a list of the recipes I wanted to make on a post it note to stick in the front of the book (I do this with all my recipe books, and yes for me that's my dream way to spend my birthday evening!). This is also the way I judge a new recipe book - the more recipes I'm excited about, the better the book.
I had a good list of recipes from this book, and after doing some sleuthing online (Twitter is a great place to search for recipe book reviews), I added a few more to the list.

Here's what I've made so far...

Holy mole black bean chilli
I love a good chilli, and although I already have a favourite (Cookie and Kate's sweet potato chilli), I am always on the quest for the best vegetarian chilli. This took a while to make for midweek, and was tasty, but, in the words of my notes "not life changing." I'd probably make it again, purely because I rarely make chilli midweek, and this involved mostly storecupboard ingredients. 
If you fancy giving this a go, the recipe is available on the Telegraph website.

Pea and Lemon risotto
So, context. I don't really love rice, I'd never made risotto before (and never order it in restaurants) and I only made this because a few people on Twitter said it was amazing. And oh my god was it amazing. There were a few fiddly steps (like boiling water in a pan - I used a kettle), and I hate it when recipes say "heat the oil" and give no indication of the temperature, but it came together relatively simply, and like Aine, I do enjoy the stirring of a risotto. I was really impressed with this, particularly with no cheese. I did agree with another reviewer (Epicurean Vegan) who said the "mint oil" was nowhere near thin enough to pour, so like her, I just spooned mine on top.
It said it served 2-4. We got 2 portions for dinner and one portion for leftovers. Which I think was about right.
So this was a huge hit. Something I would never have considered making, but would even make for a dinner party. Although I will remember to add the lemon juice next time...

Smoky moroccan chickpea stew with saffron-infused cous cous
Tagine is one of my favourite foods, and I already have a few go-to recipes, but like chilli, I'm always keen to find something as good as in a restaurant. I had a few small issues with this dish - it asks you to simmer when there is no liquid, there's no guidance on temperatures, I had to add a mug of water (however I did used tinned tomatoes so that could have made a difference) and I thought some of the ingredients here were a bit expensive (I used regular dates instead of expensive medjool dates, and while I did have saffron, I think it's a bit indulgent and could easily have been optional). I also reduced the amount of cous cous (the recipe suggests 250g for 4 people, but my packet suggested 36g per person) and thought 3 tablespoons of oil in the cous cous was a bit much. I wasn't actually going to bother with the cous cous, but I'm so glad I did because it really made the dish. We got three portions, and it's officially up there with my favourite tagines. I'll definitely be making this again.

Chana masala
We eat quite a lot of chana masala at home because it's quite an easy dish and this was no different. It was easy and quick and not much different from my usual chana masalas. I did serve it with cauliflower rice and spinach and tomatoes from Veganomicon, which made it a really lovely meal. Oh and lots of mango chutney!

Tortilla pizzas
I really wasn't sure about this. I really know how I felt about serving my meat-eating boyfriend baked tortillas with houmous on top and declaring it pizza. But this was amazing. Aine advises using two tortillas as the base, and the tomato sauce is a mix of tomato puree and garlic puree. But the real star is the houmous topping. I thought houmous thinned with lemon juice would be too tart to be edible, and a base of tomato puree would be dry and tangy. But together it totally worked. While there were quite a few steps, these pizzas were quick and easy to make (although I did have to make them one at a time) and I loved using tortillas as a base.

Macaro-no cheese with crispy kale
I've had little success in the past with vegan mac and cheese, and inevitably end up adding dairy milk or grated cheese in order to make it edible, but I've always been waiting to find a vegan version for when I want something a little bit healthier. I'm not the biggest fan of pasta in the world (which is challenging when you don't eat meat!), but every now and again I do love to make mac and cheese (Nigella's sweet potato mac and cheese is my favourite). I liked that this recipe uses roasted butternut squash and coconut milk instead of relying on cashews. I was very sceptical of whether it would really taste like cheese, especially without the addition of nutritional yeast, which seems to be prevalent in most vegan mac and cheese dishes. It was definitely a Sunday afternoon dinner, with the butternut squash needing an hour in the oven, and as we like our mac and cheese baked, I had to allow for 15 minutes baking time too. The verdict? It was tasty, although I have to admit it didn't really taste of cheese and didn't go crispy in the way we like it. I'll definitely make this again as an alternative to Nigella's, which really has to be a treat, however, I'd be curious to try to next time with some nutritional yeast. Oh but we both loved the crispy kale - yum!

Overall, I really love this book. I have at least another dozen recipes earmarked to try, and everything I've made so far has been a success. I would recommend this book to vegans and non-vegans alike, and there's a good mix of traditional vegan recipes (mac and cheese, chana masala), and more innovative dishes (Indian tacos, Swedish meatballs) that I can't wait to try. There didn't seem to be too many difficult-to-obtain ingredients, and with the exception of the mac and cheese, most of the recipes came together easily enough on a weeknight. I would have liked there to have been an indication at the start of each recipe of how long each recipe would take to cook, though. In terms of ease-of-use, there was some implied cooking knowledge, but not enough to deter a newbie. 

I'll definitely be cooking from this book again, and the tortilla pizza, chickpea stew and mint risotto will undoubtedly become regular dinners in our house.

Charlotte x