Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Christmas present / Christmas past


A while back, my dad (an only child) gave me an enormous box of old family photographs. We spent a morning looking through them while he reminisced and told me who was who.

For Christmas this year, I decided to make him a Blurb book of these snaps, documenting life from both sides of his family.


The photographs begin when my grandmother was a girl, so 1920s onwards, and end with a photo booth picture of me and my old pa. I think I must've been around 3 years old when this was taken.


Dad loved his present and I'd recommend making photo books as they're so easy and look amazingly professional.
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Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Pre Christmas binge eating

I have spent December unashamedly feasting. I have eaten, drunk, and made merry a little too much, and the resulting half a stone I've acquired will need to be dealt with strictly in 2012.

Here's what's to blame (and could almost be sung to the tune of 'The 12 Days of Christmas'):

3 curries
2 visits to Hyde & Co for fabulous cocktails (Spitfires, my god)
A box of cheese straws
Cava and Chambord black raspberry liqueur
Cava and Violette liqueur
1 Gingerbread house, decorated with £8 worth of pic n mix
  by oysterpots
Delicious mince pies from all sources, the best being the homemade ones filled with Lahloo Earl Grey and citrus mincemeat, encased in Nigella's clementine juice shortcrust
Much mulled wine, both red (classic) and white (saffron, Ikea)
Countless nets of chocolate coins, bought for the children, eaten by the grown ups

Delia's Christmas cake
Christmas cake by oysterpots


Label Anglais chicken for Christmas Day lunch, without exception the most incredible chicken I've ever eaten
A Chateau Beaucastel bought by my father in law years ago, brought out on Christmas Day. I think we were very honoured to try it and I doubt we'll drink anything so impressive again

The only culinary disappointment so far has been Christmas morning breakfast. In previous years we've baked Nigella's Christmas muffins, last year was 101 Cookbooks cinnamon rolls (faffy but well worth it), and this year I'd planned to make toasted pannetone with Carluccio's fig jam and Jamie's hot chocolate. But it just didn't happen, and we ended up eating some very mediocre pancakes.

So, January looms and it'll be healthy eating all the way. I'd planned to give up the booze for a month, along with dairy, but as I received both an ice cream machine and a yoghurt maker for Christmas giving up dairy seems a little foolish. Fro-yo, anyone?



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Sunday, 25 December 2011

Merry Christmas!

I was right - a very different scene this morning.

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Christmas Eve

My very favourite day of the year - so full of promise and excitement and anticipation.


We decided to try to make it amazing for the kids, and so we were up and out early. The morning was spent ice skating, followed by hot chocolate at Carluccio's and then a very small amount of last-minute Christmas shopping (I am normally very strict about present-buying - I hate the panic of leaving it late). It was a magical morning, and could well form the basis of a new tradition. T was just too small to navigate the ice, but was eager to try which led to some frustration. This time next year he'll be that bit more capable, although he did enjoy his hot chocolate and ended up covered.


This evening was spent wrapping the last few presents, until the massive present mountain was complete. It all looks so perfect, the house is quiet, we're a little tiddly and should really go to bed now. It's a big day tomorrow, and the scene will be very different indeed.


Oh, and I could not love A's letter to Santa any more - he wrote it in his best handwriting.
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Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Toddler-friendly Christmas Decorations

Toddlers are really not compatible with breakable Christmas decorations, and baby T is no exception. Quite the reverse, in fact - there's a reason we call him Tedzilla. So this year I'd been contemplating alternatives to a big tree in the living room, but when it came to it I could go through with a small tree on a table or a fake one.

So instead, we went with our usual 6-footer but without any of the glass decorations - just wood and wool. I couldn't bear to pack the baubles away though, and decided to create some out-of-reach decorations up high.

Above the mantlepiece hangs a real fir wreath with plenty of glass baubles tied with different coloured ribbons, and in the hallway more baubles/ribbons but this time with an added sprinkling of mistletoe.


That's not to say T won't do his usual damage, but fingers crossed it won't be anything too dangerous.
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Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Chocolate & Bling Cake

Oh my poor neglected blog. I could tell you all sorts of excuses, like how the dog ate my recipe books, but instead I will attempt to win you round with a rather delicious chocolate cake.

I've recently started a new job and one of my colleagues is as potty about baking cakes as I am. Rare in a 44-year-old facilities manager, I think, but who am I to judge? He told me of a gold cake he'd admired in a cook book and, seeing as it was his birthday last week, I thought I'd go to town for someone who'd appreciate it. I need no excuse, really.

So here it is - a beautiful spangly cake, fit for a wise man to take to a new-born king if you want to get festive.


It is simply Nigella's Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake, liberally coated with gold cake glitter. I like the juxtaposition of the plain, rather dull icing brought to life with a sprinkling of magic dust.
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Saturday, 3 December 2011

Reassuring

Reassuring by oysterpots
Today was my birthday. Something about this one feels quite monumental (it's not a biggie, but I've entered a new grouping when filling out forms) - this card helped.

  by oysterpots

The boys brought me an amazing breakfast in bed - croissants, fresh figs and yoghurt, and hot, hot tea - along with a stash of exciting presents.

  by oysterpots


The fox scarf is by Donna Wilson and comes from Soma Gallery in Clifton, the dark cloud brooch is from Tate, and the heart hold punch from Clare Pirie. I'm a lucky girl.

  by oysterpots

When I finally came down after my lie-in and breakfast in bed, I found a bright birthday banner, handwritten by A. I'm a lucky, lucky girl.

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Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The only thing missing is Paris...

The lilacs are in bloom and the sun is shining. Glorious. And time for another WI meeting...

I am a huge fan of Laduree and their perfectly petite, pastel-coloured macarons, and have been dying to try my hand at a home-made version. Malago WI are the perfect recipients for such a labour of love so this month's meeting treats were Marmalade Macarons. They were a triumph.

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Marmalade Macarons (makes 10-12)

Ingredients:
50g flaked almonds, toasted
50g icing sugar
1 medium egg white – with not so much as a speck of yolk
½ tsp egg white powder (Dr Oetker makes it)
50g caster sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
50g Clotted cream
2 tbsp marmalade (I used my home-made marmalade - make sure you use a good quality one)

Method:
1. On the underside of a piece of nonstick paper, and using a soft pencil, heavily draw 20-24 3cm circles spaced 2cm apart.
2. Finely grind the almonds, then mix with the icing sugar in a bowl. If the almonds are too small an amount to grind finely on their own, or are particularly oily, add the icing sugar and grind again.
3. With an electric whisk, beat the fresh and powdered egg white stiffly, then gradually add the caster sugar, beating for one to two minutes after each spoonful, until thick and glossy. Use a little of this meringue mix to fix the paper drawn-side down on a baking tray.
4. Fold the almond mixture and zest into the meringue, and spoon or pipe on to the tray evenly to fill the circles. Tap the tray on a worktop to pop any air bubbles, and leave for 30-60 minutes, so they dry slightly.
5. Bake at 160C (140C fan-assisted)/320F/gas 2 1/2; for 10-12 minutes, until puffed at the base and crisp on top.
6. Leave to cool - you can mix the marmalade and cream together while you're waiting. Indent the bottom of each with a knife, and sandwich with cream and marmalade.

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Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Monday, 18 April 2011

Recipe: Herby vegetable soup


I love this time of year. After what felt like a particularly long and dark winter I have a spring in my step. The garden is starting to flower, too - tulips, muscari, bluebells and geraniums are out already, and the peonies and roses won't be far behind. The mint patch is looking pretty vigorous (mint recipes a-plenty to come) and both my rosemary bushes are in full flower. These two plants are, in fact, the most self-sufficient herbs I have ever grown - no trouble or intervention whatsoever, which means they must be easy peasy for anyone to get right.

Rosemary is one of my favourites to cook with, too. I love how it brings a heartiness to a stew or casserole, adds a fragrant touch to breads, and takes roast potatoes and other veg to new heights of flavour. Last summer, a friend brought round a food parcel - much welcomed by us, the parents of a 2-day-old baby - and inside was a batch of homemade soup. It was one of those soups that restores and revives - not chicken, but a hearty vegetable soup with a heady hit of rosemary. It is this that I've tried to recreate here, with the last of the winter veg and the first of the summer herbs.


Herby Vegetable Soup (serves 4)

Ingredients:
2 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, roughly chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 leek, washed and chopped
1 tsp thyme
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1" pieces
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and chopped
1 litre stock (I used Marigold Vegan Vegetable Bouillon)
A generous stem of freshly picked rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method:
1. Melt the butter and oil in a large pan over a medium heat.
2. Add the onions, celery and leek, and the thyme, and stir to coat in the butter/oil. Cover and cook for ten minutes or until the vegetables have softened.
3. Add the carrots, potatoes and squash, and stir.
4. Pour in the stock, and increase the heat until you get a gentle boil going. Add the rosemary - I leave it whole as I'm happy to eat around the needles in my bowl of soup, but you might like to chop it finely if this isn't your bag. In which case, I don't think I'd use more than a tablespoon of chopped rosemary as it might all get a bit intense.
5. Allow the soup to simmer away quietly for half an hour or so, or until the veg are tender. It is up to you how firm or mushy you like your veg and, indeed, whether you choose to whiz it up in a blender, mash it, or leave it rustic. Just make sure you take the rosemary out before blending.
6. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt if it needs it (but I do find the Marigold powder to be salty enough) and a few grinds of black pepper.

I made a Doris Grant loaf to go with this, which is a no-knead bread.

Incidentally, if you are a fan of rosemary in all its forms, I can recommend an essential oil blend designed to clear the head:
3 drops Rosemary
2 drops Lemon
1 drop Peppermint
Burn in an oil burner, or add to a bath for the herbal equivalent of bathing in red bull.

Combine this with '81' by the amazing Joanna Newsom (which is chock full of nature imagery and utterly beautiful to boot) and you have the smell and sounds that will forever transport me back to Winter 2010-11.


More vegan recipes.

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Friday, 11 March 2011

Mind The Gap


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The hungry gap is the name gardeners give to this time of year, when the winter crops are over but before the spring vegetables appear. Mainly we're left with brassicas. But what to do with cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli week after week? I find they take to spice well (as do I) and so last night we had a double whammy - Cauliflower Dhal & South Indian Cabbage.

I know, I know, curry made at home is never the same as a curry house, but these really are good recipes, honestly - Madhur knows best. What, are you going to have cauliflower cheese AGAIN? Go on, give these a whirl. I think you'll be surprised.

Cauliflower Dhal (serves 4)
Adapted from Leith's Vegetarian Bible, with many amends (New Testament, perhaps)

Ingredients:
225g green lentils (we only had Puy lentils, they were fine)
1 large onion, sliced
5cm piece of fresh root ginger, bruised (no fresh, so I used a teaspoon of ground ginger)
1 green chilli, deseeded and sliced (oops, I read the recipe wrong and used two, but they were mild ones)
2 tbsp sunflower oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tsp ground turmeric
1 small cauliflower, cut into florets
110g creamed coconut
290ml boiling water
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Method:
1. Put the lentils into a saucepan with the onion, ginger and chilli. Cover with water and simmer for about 30 minutes until tender (the puy lentils I used took longer - perhaps more like 45 minutes. Just keep testing them).
2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a frying pan, add the mustard and cumin seeds and fry until they begin to pop. Add the garlic and cook over a low heat until soft, then stir in the turmeric. Add the cauliflower florets and stir until coated in the spice mixture.
3. Dissolve the creamed coconut in the boiling water and pour over the cauliflower. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer until the cauliflower is tender.
4. When the lentils are cooked, remove the ginger and drain away any remaining liquid. Toss together with the cauliflower and serve hot.

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South Indian Cabbage (serves 4)
Recipe from Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian

Ingredients:
4 tbsp vegetable oil
A generous pinch of ground asafetida
1 tsp brown mustard seeds (or black ones... Who has more than one type of mustard seeds in the cupboard? Not me.)
1 tsp urad or chana dal, or yellow split peas (I used mung)
5-6 fenugreek seeds2-3 dried red chillies
10 fresh curry leaves or fresh basil (I used about 5 dried curry leaves)
340g green cabbage/spring greens, cored and shredded
1-11/4 tsp salt

Method:
1. Put the oil into a large wok or frying pan and set over medium-high head. When hot, put in the asafetida. A second later, put in the mustard seeds and dal. As soon as the mustard seeds start to pop - a matter of seconds - put in the fenugreek seeds and whole red chillies. (To make life easier, I set out a series of little bowls, Blue Peter style, containing mustard seeds/dal, and another with the fenugreek and chillies. This way you can act immediately, as Madhur says, without leaving anything to chance.)
2. Allow the dal to get red and for the chillies to turn dark, then put in, first, the curry leaves, and then the cabbage. Give it a few quick stirs. Add the salt. Stir, and cook for one minute.
3. Now cover, turn the heat to low and cook for 6-8 minutes, or until the cabbage has wilted completely (you might need to add a sprinkling of water). Uncover and taste for salt. Stir and cook for another 1-2 minutes, then serve.

Obviously you will want rice with this. I am renowned for getting rice wrong - too much, not enough, too mushy, stuck together, blah blah - but I tried cooking it in the microwave and it was a triumph. I am also a fan of Indian breads, and would always welcome a naan or chapati to the table, along with a chutney selection. Mango and Brinjal both went well with this, as did a dollop of natural yogurt.
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Thursday, 10 March 2011

How do I love tea? Let me count the ways...


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Since my post about coffee, I've felt a little, well, like I have been unfaithful to the good leaf. Tea is my true love when it comes to hot drinks, with coffee only coming into play for it's energising qualities. Today the baby slept until 6.09am which is unheard of, and means no need for java. So here is a little love letter to my poison.
Tea is the way I like to start my day, and it punctuates the hours as they go by. It is the default I always return to whenever I'm not quite sure what to do with myself - it restores my factory settings. A quote about the restorative qualities of tea adorns our official Malago WI apron: There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea - Bernard-Paul Heroux
Amen to that.

A while back, I got tired of making tea in a cup rather than a pot. A pot is fine if you have company, and I do love my Ikea pot and it's woolly, bobble-hat tea cosy, but it's too large for a single cup. What I needed was a dinky pot which would hold just enough for one. A bit like those lovely ones the Tate cafes use. Well, wouldn't you know it? Tate shops sell them - hoorah. They are pricey at £25, but if you use it at least once every day the cost-per-use is so tiny it's irrelevant.

While we're on the subject of the great Tate, I have to admit to being a bit of a groupie despite living hundreds of miles from my nearest. The galleries and exhibitions are, of course, incredible - you don't need me to tell you that - but I am also obsessed with the cafes, and the shops too. Brilliant stuff for kids, and beautiful things for everyone else. Such a good place to buy presents. Oh, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter and you'll feel like they're a part of your daily life. My favourite is Tate St Ives, and they do a brilliant job of writing the loveliest Facebook updates that transport me to Porthmeor Beach with the sun on my face and the salty breeze in my hair. Sitting on top of the Tate teapot is my beloved Tate St Ives mug, which I cannot seem to find hide nor hair of online, strangely. And while we're on the subject of museums, my other favourite mug sits top left, and is from the Guggenheim in New York.

Mug is empty. Baby needs waking. Tea break over.




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Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Recipe: American style pancakes

Image: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash


My son has a book illustrated by Eric Carle called Pancakes, Pancakes! The protagonist is a small boy who wakes up one morning demanding pancakes for breakfast (this is why my son loves it - he does the same). Mrs Pancake is wise to Master Pancake's demands, though, and tells him he must go to the farmer, borrow a flail and thresh his own flour from the wheat fields, then take the wheat to the miller to make flour. Our hero then has to milk a cow and churn his own butter. His final quest is to encourage a friendly hen to lay him an egg. When he has all these ingredients, she will then make him his long-awaited and much-wanted pancakes (surely too late for breakfast? And what mother would send her child off to work on an empty stomach? And, frankly, what child would still be interested - or even remember what he was doing in the first place?? Eric has no answers).

Plot inconsistencies aside, I find myself wondering how amazing those pancakes would taste with the freshest ingredients you could possibly use rather than the ordinary, shop-bought ones we have to make do with. One day, I really hope I can send my boys off down our real-life garden path to fetch a fresh egg or two, but in the meantime there's always Aldi (99p for six free-range eggs, cheapest I have found).

So yesterday was Pancake Day. Writing this post feels rather stabledoorhorsebolted, but a pancake is for life not just for Shrove Tuesday. We love pancakes. Weekend breakfasts often consist of American-style pancakes with berries and maple syrup, and I wouldn't be averse to a pancake-based meal for lunch as well. And probably in the evening too, if I'm totally honest. It would be quite possible to eat nothing but pancakes in their various forms for every meal, and so, with this in mind, here begins a season of pancake recipes (uber-fresh ingredients not obligatory).

American Pancakes
250g plain flour (2 cups)
2 tsp baking powder
3 tbsp sugar (although this could be left out - see below)
250ml milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
50g unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp cinnamon (optional, depending on toppings)

1. I simply stick it all into the blender but if you don't have one sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl. Mix the milk, eggs and melted butter in a large jug, add the flour and mix quickly. Don't worry about lumps.
2. Heat a frying pan until medium hot and grease lightly with extra butter, pour in batter in batches to make rounds. Cook for 1-2 minutes or until bubbles form on top and the underside is golden. Flip each one over and cook for 1 minute. Keep them warm in the oven while you finish the batch, or nibble on them as you're going if you find them as irresistible as I do.

Note: For little babies, I have experimented with using mashed banana instead of the sugar, and one banana added to this quantity of batter adds a little more sweetness but does affect the consistency - you get a slightly heavier, more textured pancake. But still totally delicious, and the American pancakes are easy for fat little fists to grip (you can adjust the size accordingly or cut them into chip-sized pieces). Another nice banana thing to do is to slice bananas thinly and add to the side that's uppermost while the first side is cooking. Push them down into the wet batter so that it comes up around them to avoid them burning when you flip them.

My Master Pancake had his with syrup; we had ours with stewed apple and honey (not for babies under one - the honey, that is). Superquick stewed apples: Bramley apples sliced thinly, with a slug of apple juice, in a bowl with a lid, into the microwave on full power for 3 and a half minutes.
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Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Recipe: Moroccan chickpea and squash stew

This is a fantastic recipe for a warming, chickpea stew that sets itself apart from most veg stews by virtue of an authentically multi-layered spice blend. You can leave out the hot spices and seasoning if you are going to feed this to babies and children, and add them afterwards in the form of salt and pepper at the table, a deeply seasoned couscous, and/or harissa (mmm, harissa, how I love you so). The gentler spices are not off-putting to nippers, perhaps because the other ingredients are fairly sweet and we all know that in the battle to get kids to eat, sweet is our friend (shh, don't tell Jamie Oliver).


Moroccan chickpea and squash stew
(adapted from a Madhur Jaffrey recipe)

Ingredients:
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground paprika
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (leave this out if cooking for small people)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and cut into fine half-rings
1 tin plum tomatoes
1 tin chickpeas, drained
310g peeled, seeded butternut squash (or other squash, pumpkin etc), cut into 1cm dice (or larger if you like a stew with firmer veg and a slightly thinner sauce)
2 tbsp raisins
4 dried apricots, cut into 0.5cm dice
500ml vegetable stock (use very low salt stock or water if cooking for babies)
1/2 large courgette, cut into 1cm dice
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley

To serve:
Couscous, bulgar wheat, quinoa or similar grain of your fancy
Harissa! Oh yes.

Method:
Combine the spices in a cup and set aside.
Put the oil in a generous pan and set over a medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion. Stir and fry for 3 minutes or so, until the onion has started to brown.
Add the spices from the cup, stir once, and add the tomatoes.
[A note on tomatoes: I have recently started using tinned whole tomatoes, after years of using chopped. I read somewhere that using whole means you are in charge of deciding how large a chunk you end up with, as well as the ratio of tomato to juice being more appropriate and easier to control if you aren't using a whole tin. They are also cheaper - everyone's a winner. As you were.]
Stir and cook the tomatoes for 3-4 minutes or until they have softened.
Add the chickpeas, squash, raisins, apricots and stock, and bring to a simmer.
Cover, turn the heat down and cook for 15 minutes or so. The pan should be bubbling away nicely - not Vesuvius, but you want to hear it chatting away to you.
When the squash is just tender when pierced with the point of a knife, add the courgettes and simmer, uncovered, for another 10 minutes or until the courgette has softened to your liking, stirring now and again.
Add the coriander and parsley just before serving - give it a couple of minutes to cook down as, unless you have the knife skills of a sous chef, parsley can be a bit on the tough side if it's not cooked in.

To serve, put a mound of couscous or whatever you're having on each plate. Make a well in the centre and put a chunky spoonful of stew in the well. Dampen the surrounding couscous generously with some of the sauce, and serve with the hot stuff on the side.

This quantity should serve 4, or (in our house) 2 adults, 1 toddler and one baby. OR 2 adults who like to have seconds and three baby portions (you could sling a couple in the freezer for a rainy day). I made up a small amount of couscous (25g left for 5 minutes in 50ml boiling water to rehydrate) and mixed this with the baby portions, along with a couple of tablespoonfuls of apple juice and whizzed the lot up with a hand blender. You will know if this is suitable for your baby in terms of texture and quantity - my babe is 7 months and has been an enthusiastic eater from 21 weeks, and he wolfed this down with a satisfying 'mmm' after each mouthful.

I cannot extol the virtues of this lovely meal more effusively - it's a healthy one, lots of lovely vegetable protein, vegan, actually, come to think of it, and a great gentle introduction to spice, but one sophisticated enough not to make adults feel they are eating a tedious, compromised, 'family' meal. It's a rare thing.

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Monday, 28 February 2011

Things to make 5am more bearable

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When you live with two small people who think that 5am is a perfectly decent time to rise, you need to arm yourself with an arsenal of things to counteract this. In the war against the early birds, I own copious boxes of earplugs and have perfected a fail-safe way of curling my pillow over my head at just the right angle to best shut out the noise. But the time comes (normally approx 5.05am) when it's game over and I have to admit defeat and get up.

I have always been a tea-drinker, ever since I used to get into my parents' bed as a small child (hmm, is there a pattern emerging?) and my mum would pour me sugary tea into her saucer to cool it down fast enough for my impatient, petulant mouth to swallow. I dabbled with black coffee (instant, two sugars) at university to get me through all-night, essay-writing hell.

Seeing 5am regularly is a fresh hell, though, and one that requires fresh coffee. Our coffee-making equipment is rather meagre - we have a dusty cafetiere that comes out when we have people over for a meal, and we have two Moka pots (one small, one large) which are used daily. You can tell immediately what kind of a night we've had according to whether the 3-cup or the 6-cup Moka is on the hob.

Not content with necking strong coffee (now with milk but still sweet), I also apply it liberally to my face in the form of Origins GinZing Eye Cream, and Garnier Caffeine Anti-dark Circles Concealer. Add a bit of Clarins Beauty Flash embalming fluid Balm and you have the perfect recipe for small person survival.
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Monday, 21 February 2011

Rhubarb, rhubarb

Rhubarb: I can never quite get my head around which type is in season and when. Considering I am writing about this strange fruit today, I thought I'd better look it up and then discuss the subject as if I am an expert. According to my Eden Project 'Seasonal Food' compendium, the stuff that's around now is forced rhubarb, traditionally grown in the dark. I remember watching a Rick Stein Food Heroes programme where RS visited a Yorkshire rhubarb farm. The plant was growing in huge barns and the farmers tended it by candlelight, and you could actually hear the rhubarb creaking as it grew. Magic.

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So this is the pale-fleshed, pink-skinned variety, which looks a little like crabsticks when you chop it up. Donna Hay is clearly a total master at everything, and turns out she knows a thing or two about rhubarb - there is an entire cooking section devoted to her rhubarb recipes in the March 2011 edition of Living Etc. DH is also a genius at styling, and all the recipes looked beautiful but I decided to attempt the Rhubarb Scones with Rhubarb and Vanilla Jam. Afternoon tea is always good, and this version would be particularly nice with a new Chamomile and Vanilla Pukka tea I've just bought. Perfect for a winter weekend of baking. Less so with two small people to look after at the same time, getting under my feet.

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The scones began well. The recipe calls for a basic scone mix with the addition of cream instead of butter, to which you add the diced rhubarb that has been macerating (isn't that the best word?) in vanilla essence and sugar. Inevitably, this process resulted in a couple of tablespoonfuls of liquid coming out of the rhubarb. I had to think quickly... add this or drain the fruit? The recipe didn't say. The scone mix was quite stiff, so I decided to add the liquid. Wrong decision, which I realised almost immediately but it was too late. I blame the smalls. Donna instructed me to roll the mixture out to a 3cm thickness, which I would've done had the dough not been completely soggy. 'Cut into 5cm scones', said Donna. I gave it a go, but the mixture was too loose and began to creep out towards the sides of the baking tray. I had right royally rhubarbed it up. I had to cook the 'scones' for longer than the recipe said, and the end result was not good - more like cookies than scones, they were thin and hard rather than chunky and light. But the flavour was perfect - sharp fruit sweetened by the sugar and vanilla, and rich with cream. A second attempt is definitely on the cards. Incidentally, the cookie-like appearance made me think a rhubarb and white chocolate cookie would be really rather marvellous.

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The jam, though. Well, it was something else. So simple - rhubarb, sugar, water, vanilla pod/seeds. Boil up, as you would any other kind of jam. Makes a very small amount - 250ml or so - but as it's a soft-set jam you have to keep it in the fridge and it only lasts for 2 weeks. The end result is utterly beautiful... that perfect pink, the shade only rhubarb and Mattel can produce, densely polka-dotted with vanilla seeds. (Incidentally, if you like a good soft-set, I can recommend Marks & Spencer's soft set plum jam. Falls just at the right place on the sharp-sweet spectrum.)

So not entirely a success, but enough of one to try again - better hurry up before the fleeting rhubarb season is over.

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Saturday, 19 February 2011

How to make washing up more appealing

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We have a pretty good division of labour in the our household. I do most of the cooking, Ben does most of the washing up, although the baby bottles are mostly my domain (writing this, I think I get the better deal).

I can't bear washing up - the feeling of putting your hand into a cold sink full of dirty water to pull out the plug is one of my most hated jobs - but those pots and pans aint gonna wash themselves.
To make this most tedious of tasks slightly more bearable I have installed a jasmine plant on the windowsill. Earlier today I was washing out the sink and the beautiful scent from this lovely plant made the job almost pleasant. And the view from the sink window is improving every day... I can now spot snowdrops and violets, plus the green shoots of bulbs on their way up and out into the open.
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Friday, 18 February 2011

Today's delivery

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Oh, it's a very seductive thing, getting fresh, organic vegetables delivered to your door. And here's today's Riverford Favourites delivery - what a beautiful box. On first sight, anyway.

Lurking inside are my culinary nemesis - mushrooms. I'm 34 years old. I should really be a bit more grown up about this kind of thing, but I just really, really hate mushrooms. Love the flavour, but hate the sliminess, the mouthfeel (now there's a word invented solely for mushrooms, I'm sure), the way they look like slugs when they're cooked. If you really want to upset me, serve me a giant portobello mushroom in a bun. Or mushroom soup. I can barely type these words.

So what will I do with them? Perhaps I can find a recipe to combine the dreaded mushrooms with the green pepper gang currently doing time in the bottom of the fridge. I love a green pepper in a big, hot chilli - it seems to really enhance the flavour if diced very small and added up front as a seasoning, along with the onions and garlic - but other than that they're not much cop, are they? I have consulted the good book, my trusty Leith's Vegetarian Bible for inspiration, but the index has precious little to offer me. A mushroom and green pepper stir-fry? Maybe...

My search led me to the Riverford recipe site, but still nothing doing. Everything seemed a little to mushroom-heavy to me. I kept searching. Over to Riverford's competitor, Abel & Cole. Is that disloyal? Perhaps, but I'm a slave to my appetite and refuse to be beaten by these blighters. Incidentally, yogis do not trust mushrooms. Apparently anything that grows in the dark is suspicious. I think this knowledge has fueled my funghi paranoia.

Anyway, so Abel & Cole have come up trumps with their Mushroom Bolognese. Finely diced sounds good to me, and this looks like the sort of thing A would eat up and ask for seconds.

But what about the peppers? The only Leith's recipe to catch my eye is one for Metboukha Tartlets. From the recipe intro: This rich and spicy tomato and green pepper marmelade has its origins in North Africa. It can be served in tartlet cases as a first course or in smaller ones as a canape.

Well, seeing as we are not regular canape-eaters in this house, nor do we often have more than one course, I think I'd have to think of a way to make it a little more substantial to eat as a main. But it's a possible. Watch this space.
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Thursday, 17 February 2011

Rainbow Ragout with Hedgehog Spuds



Rainbow Ragout

Ingredients:
1 tbsp olive oil
2 small onions, cut into half moons
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp thyme
1 red pepper, cut into 1" pieces
1 yellow pepper, cut into 1" pieces
1/2 courgette, diced
1 sweet potato, cut into 1" pieces
3 mushrooms, chopped
1 tin tomatoes
1 tin black beans
1 tsp sugar
Salt and pepper

Method:

Heat the oil in a sturdy pan, before adding the onions, garlic, celery and herbs. Allow these to soften and cook for 5 minutes or so, before adding the remaining vegetables (this is when you have a rainbow in your saucepan - beautiful). Cook over a medium heat, stirring regularly, until the vegetables are beginning to brown slightly. Add the tomatoes, fill the tin half way up with water and add this too. Finally add the sugar and the drained black beans (why do I find it so difficult to get hold of black beans? They are one of my favourites). Cook on a low to medium heat, just bubbling away gently, for half an hour or until the ragout is thick and soupy. Season with pepper.

I didn't add any salt so that I could whizz a portion up for Baby Tea, and had intended to throw a few black olives into our portions, but predictably I forgot to do this so added some salt on the plate.

We ate the ragout with hedgehog potatoes - inspired by Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks recipe - although I used chilli flakes in the spuds rather than harissa, and served a bit of Belazu Rose Harissa (to which I am fully addicted) on the side, along with broccoli and green beans. I think this probably equals at least 5-a-day, if not more.

More vegan recipes
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Monday, 14 February 2011

A Spoonful of Sugar

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A and T were both been summoned by the NHS for immunisation boosters on the same day - what joy! I was very proud of them as they were a brave pair. No tears were shed. I promised an ice-cream treat afterwards, and A opted for fragola (strawberry) with sprinkles, while I went for a mint choc chip gelato. T even had a little taste, and as he ate I could see the curiosity and confusion spread across his face along with the drips and smears of Bedminster's finest ice cream. I'd never have given his brother ice cream at such a young age, but I'm making a huge effort to be less precious with this one. It's working out okay so far...
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Thursday, 10 February 2011

Souk Kitchen

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Sloe gin with pomegranate tonic. What a way to finish the day!

And the most amazing middle eastern dips - white bean, beetroot, and carrot and rosewater. All scooped up with delicious oily, salty, garlicky flat bread.

Not made by me, though, but I will give it a go at some point as the wonderful Souk Kitchen provides its customers with recipes to take home. Instead we were lucky enough to get a. a babysitter, and b. a table at short notice at our newest, most favourite local restaurant. My main course was a delight, too - squash and lentil tagine which, combined with the gin aperitif, warmed me up good and proper. Ben had halloumi skewers served with a delicately spiced pilaf, studded with almonds and pomegranate seeds. Everything was wonderful.

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Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Cherry and almond cake

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It's been a while since I last made a cake. I had a yearning.

This recipe was a good one, although next time I'll up the cherry quota and put a bit more of the jam in the centre, and marble it up a bit more than I did this time. It was so good straight from the oven, less so the next day or two. The jammy centre became more and more necessary as time went on and the cake dried out.

Incidentally, I can't recommend these loaf tin liners more highly - no more fiddling about with baking paper and butter. Result.
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Saturday, 5 February 2011

Brunch with Debo Mitford

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I escaped from the boys to enjoy a solitary breakfast at Rosemarino in Clifton.

You're never alone when you've got a good book, though, and I took 'Wait for Me!' by Deborah Cavendish, youngest Mitford and dowager Duchess of Devonshire to keep me company. I have loved the Mitfords for years, and I'm fascinated by their escapades, no matter how often I read about them. It is taking me forever to read this book, an experience anyone with small children will share, I'm sure, so it was an extra treat to be given a chunk of time to enjoy it. 

My brain fed, I needed to feed my tum too, so I ordered granola with fruit and yoghurt, a Pago juice, and one of those really thick, dark hot chocolates that are almost custard-like. I could stick my spoon upright in this one - it was intense. The granola was delicious, the berries sweet and fragrant, and the yogurt rich and soothing.

Amazing how even just a little pocket of time like this can feel like a holiday. Returning home I was desperate to see the boys, who had been cooking up a storm of their own. A was so proud of the spaghetti sauce he'd helped to cook, and it was really rather good. It does fill my heart with joy that he's interested in food, ingredients, cooking. Doesn't have much choice, living in this food-obsessed house.
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Monday, 31 January 2011

My favourite tools

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If you've ever watched Nigella Lawson's cookery programmes, you might have noticed she tends to use the same knife over and over. I expect most cooks have a weapon of choice, and mine is my Zwilling Santoku knife. It's just the right weight and size for me, and every time I use it I get great joy from such a well-designed tool.

I also have a Zwilling Chef's knife which suffered an unfortunate accident somewhere back in the mists of time, and no longer has a pointed nose. They don't come cheap, these Zwillings, so I can't afford to replace it but I still use it. But it doesn't come close to the Santoku.

At the other end of the scale, I love the Kuhn Rikon range - cheap, but really colourful and not bad quality either.
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Thursday, 27 January 2011

I made marmalade


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Hugely faffy, but utterly delicious. The chopping of the peel was an immense job that took me an hour or so, but it was that kind of repetitive task that becomes almost meditation-like. I went to a different place - Marmalade cafe perhaps - which was just what I needed on a cold and rainy winter weekend. There's a lot of shred in the end product (perhaps a bit more than I'd normally choose) but the flavour is so sparky. You can just about see in the pic that the recipe included two lemons, so it's quite a bitter-sharp combination, but bitter-sweet with it. The perfect balance.

Made using Riverford's marmalade kit and accompanying recipe - £4.49 ended up producing about six jars of amazing organic marmalade, that should hopefully last us at least part way through 2011.

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The finest cakes known to humanity


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... are made by the Women's Institute, of course. Malago WI is in its third year and going from strength to strength. Each meeting is centred around copious tea and cake, and for January's meeting I decided to use a silicon mould I'd bought in the Habitat sale. The mould is, I think, a canele bordelais mould which is designed for a very specific cake, a cake that requires 24 hours for the batter to settle.

Seeing as the meeting was that night, I decided to improvise with a basic sponge recipe and the addition of a third of a jar of mincemeat left over from Christmas folded in at the end. They weren't bad, and were a good way to use up mincemeat as it instantly transforms a plain sponge into a fruity cake. They looked quite impressive as well, thanks to the pretty mould.

The other cakes brought to the meeting by Malago women were ace too, and the cake table looked a picture.
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Saturday, 22 January 2011

Lunch of champions


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I am desperate to own chickens. We even have a scrappy old patch at the end of the garden that would be a perfect home for a few feathered friends. Not to mention the stack of girls' names I never got to use on my human babies - they'd be just right for chooks, and I need to get the oestrogen levels up to even out all those boys.

But the reason I want them most of all is that there is no finer lunch than a perfectly boiled egg with toast soldiers. Dippy. Drippy. Delicious. Nuff said.

Egg cup is by Donna Wilson.
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Tuesday, 4 January 2011

First loaf of the year


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Back in early 2010, I went on a bread-making course with the wonderful Mark of Mark's Bread. I came out filled with enthusiasm and sure I would be making bread every day. Didn't happen, of course, and I got distracted with babies and suchlike, but I'm going to try and get back to that calming rhythm of the kneading and the making and the proving and the baking.

And here's the first result of the year - a cottage loaf, made using a very simple recipe found on the side of the Dove's Farm yeast packet.

It was a good start.
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