Thursday, 13 April 2017

For those who work from home

A Poem

I must stop drinking tea
It does this thing to me
'cos every time I have a cup
I need to have a pee!

Working on the next verse, which will be about how every time I go to the kitchen to put the kettle on, the cat expects me to make toast, so she can lick the drips of melted butter off the plate.

More soon.

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Moment Has Arrived

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, it's dry, and almost warm!

The Equinox is over a week away, but Spring has well and truly sprung, and I'm finally confident enough to sow seeds.

This has been the coldest Winter for a few years.  Whilst there were no days when snow stopped everything, at least a little fell.  We had more heavy frosts than the past couple of years put together.  We had a couple of instances of consecutive heavy frosts, when the ice on the pond stayed solid for a few days in a row.  The downside of this was that I had to eventually fish out a dead frog that was a little over eager to get back under water and stake their spot for the breeding season. Fortunately, other frogs were a little more sensible, and for the past couple of weeks I've seen other frogs in the pond.

My little snowdrop collection has put on a great show, from the delicate Wasp to the big & bumptious Rev.Hailstone, and so many in between.  Once the last flowers have gone over, I'll start dividing and repotting them.  The frost has damaged quite a few pots, so it will be a pretty comprehensive job this year.  This year the double white Hellebore has been the most vigorous of my collection.  At the moment my favourite one, the yellow, is looking a little weedy, so I may have to work on the soil in that patch.

But Spring has arrived, as usual very slowly at first, then suddenly over the past few days my crocuses and daffodils have burst into flower, as have some of the plants in the shade bed apart from Hellebores - the Brunnera Jack Frost is in flower, the dark flowered Scopolia is in bud and colouring up, and the dwarf Celandine plants are leafing up.  On an edible note, I picked my first batch of Ransoms (wild Garlic) leaves for the year.

Not that was the first harvest of the year.  In January, I was able to pick a few flowers from the trough of Saffron crocus I'd planted at end at Summer.  I extracted the stamens and set them to dry, and by February was able to use them in a risotto.  I've sown little pots of salad microgreens which sit on the kitchen windowsill and get snipped and added to sandwiches, salads and scrambled eggs.  At the allotment, we had kale to pick throughout the coldest of days, when all other crops gave up the ghost.  Ignore the tarring by the brush of earnest health charlatans, Kale is reliable, versatile and tasty.  It survives the worst that Winter can throw at it.  Grow it for that reason.

In fact, just last week I started the kale crops that will see us through next Winter.  At the weekend I sowed more salads and the first batch of peas & beans.  This morning I planted the first potatoes for the year, in potato planting backs, to be grown in the back garden for extra early cropping.  Hopefully this week will be dry enough to get started with planting the rest at the allotment before the month is out.

Despite the doom and chaos in the outside world, what I can organise myself is looking positive.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Doing things ever so slightly differently

Valentines Day again.  Never been the biggest fan, maybe because I never got any cards from secret admirers.  Howard and I have never been hung up on it, unless we see a particularly daft card.  Always a good excuse for chocolate though - I spent the afternoon making some - a selection of orange and lemon flavoured white chocolate cups.  Still at the experimental stage - the lemon flavoured ones turned out fine, but the moment I added a few drops of red colouring to the orange ones, the texture of the melted chocolate changed.  Happened to both the rose and mont flavoured chocolates I made for Christmas too.  It turns them almost fudge like - fine to eat, but a pain to divide into paper cases.

The menu planning is going well.  Certainly makes day to day cooking easier.  We hardly have any leftovers now, except what is planned to turn into lunch, and grocery shopping is much easier now.  Tonight I'm cooking smoked haddock - poached in a splash of milk, and served with potatoes and broad beans.  Not something you'd want to take into work & reheat (sadly any fish or brassica dish does not smell office friendly), so tomorrow Howard will take one of the soups I made by pureeing the remains of one of our casseroles & freezing it.  Hopefully if he chooses one and takes it out of the freezer tonight, it will have defrosted in time for him to cook & eat it tomorrow - the last one too two days to defrost!

Normally around this time of year, I would have attended the first RHS Flower show at their HQ in Westminster.  In fact, it was on today.  But this year I decided not to.  Firstly, my knee is causing too much pain at the moment, so I didn't want to be out alone for too long.  Secondly, with just the one income at the moment, we need to buy just the plants we need to grow, and not be distracted.  I have a plant and crop list, and I'm doing my utmost to stick to it.  But most of all, the RHS have decided to charge for entry to the shows, even for members.  As far as I am concerned, free entry to these small shows is part of being a member.  In fact, I'm pretty certain it was stated as included on their website at the time I paid my subs for the year.  We are told it is to help them pay for a garden apprentice scheme, though I think it could well be to allow for a shortfall if the new show at Chatsworth House doesn't pull in the crowds.  All in all, I think it's as badly thought out a move as selling their main hall to Westminster School - a private, for profit school, then having to pay rent to use it about three times a year.  We'll have to see if they back down.

I also missed the Myddleton House Snowdrop sale this year.  Always held at the end of January, this is fairly local to me.  Just a couple of bus rides and a walk in fact.  It's a fun event, with everyone queueing up, and then a 15 minute frenzy when the gates open.  I've bought some lovely snowdrops there, but have not gone as mad as some.  I set myself a budget, and for last year's sale, I even compiled a strict wants list.  Some of the more obsessive collectors spent hundreds (I've never seen so many £50 notes in one place).  Granted, some of the more collectable plants had prices around or over three figures, but I am quite happy with my collection.  It lacks a few "classic" plants, but I have a good mix of small, tall, double, green marked, yellow marked, robust and dainty. I have them in pots dotted along the path from the back door, and they brighten what can be a shady part of the garden.  Even during the fog and snow of the past couple of weeks, the differing plants brightened the way and encouraged me to get organised for the new growing year.

In fact on the weekend of the snowdrop sale, we ended up taking a journey to a nearby garden centre to get at least a few seed potatoes.  Again, I'd put together a list of exactly what I wanted.  I had looked online and couldn't get every variety I wanted from just one place, so was getting frustrated.  As it turned out, the garden centre had more varieties than the one they advertised as having in stock, so I was able to get all on my list.

So now all I need is for the weather to warm up slightly and I can get going on preparing to plant for the new year.


Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Almost cut my hair (and how we came upon a bundle of fluff)

I trim my fringe every few weeks - especially during hayfever season, and when he can't find the time to arrange an appointment (more often than not), I cut Howard's hair.  I even bought proper hairdressing scissors a couple of years ago, so there was no longer an issue with the kitchen scissors being coated in hair conditioner.

Last night I trimmed my hair too.  Not much - just and inch or so, then thinned the ends.  For so little work, the difference is amazing - doesn't feel so straggly any more, and I don't feel compelled to tie it back to keep it tidy.

I WILL get a proper haircut at some point soon, but with funds being tight, it was well worth the effort.

Our local hairdressers are great - it was after all, how we came to adopt Pumpkin cat.

Flashback to November 2014 - How Pumpkin came to live with us.

She at the time belonged to the family who lived upstairs from the salon, and were tenants of the shop owner.  During the Autumn of 2014, staff noticed a can kept coming in & sleeping under where the towels were stored - a nice cosy place.  On further investigation, turned out it was owned by the flat upstairs, but spent its days in the cold, dingy concrete yard at the back of the shop, as the mother of the family didn't want it in the house during the day.  My hairdresser spoke to her tenants, and said if they really, didn't want to look after the cat, she would arrange for it to be rehomed.

It just so happened that I had booked an appointment for the Saturday morning.  While my hair was being cut, I talked about how we had lost Sheba cat to old age & illness in February, and given the mouse problem we'd had of late, decided we couldn't live without a cat much longer. So she mentioned that the upstairs tenants had a cat that needed rehoming, that it was most likely in the yard, but it was "a bit wild" and usually ran away when spotted.

So, once my hair was styled and dry, we popped out to have a look.  A first, there was no sign.  From the description, I was half expecting to see a battle-scarred tom cat, but then, on the top of the lean-to roof, huddled in the corner, I spotted a small, fluffy black cat.  I proffered my usual new cat greeting - held out my hand and said "Hello baby" - and it trotted towards me and sniffed my hand and face.  My hairdresser was amazed, said it had never reacted like that before.  We stayed in the yard a little while longer, and I was filled in on what info she had about the cat - female, neutered, about two years old (but tiny for that age).  I said I was interested, but would have to speak to Howard.

He was unsure, but popped down the next day to have a look.  Overnight, being 1st November and a Saturday, there had been fireworks, and later torrential rain.  So when he went to see her in the yard, she was cold & soggy, and not in the mood to socialise.  He didn't tell me at the time (spent the next few days asking me if I was sure what I had agreed to) but then and there decided we needed to take her on.

So I phoned and confirmed we would adopt her, but needed a little time to make a secure indoor space for her while she settled in.  Two Sundays later, we came along with a clean new pet carrier, to collect her from the family.  We had sprayed about half the contents of a bottle of Feliway cat calming spray on us ready for the journey home and what was expected to be a fractious afternoon.  With the exception of the daughter, it was clear nobody in the family paid any attention to the cat, and even she seemed to be more interested in her new goldfish.  So after a slight struggle to get her in the carrier (which she still hates), we collected her and set off home.

Her original name was Lucky, which given her circumstances, that felt almost sarcastic.  I decided that, as I had first met with her the morning after Halloween, and she had been sitting all folorn near someone's doorway, I would call her Pumpkin.

We had decided to set up space for her in the back bedroom, which we had turned into an office.  The think was that this was quieter than the front of the house, had a big window that looked out onto the gardens, so she could get a look at her territory before she was ready to venture out, and it was easy to keep that door closed while we got on with our day.  It also had the ensuite shower room, when we could have a litter tray for her which could be emptied and cleaned without having to go to the kitchen or the main bathroom (which actually had less floorspace).

When we arrived and let her out of the carrier, she bolted for the darkest corner of the bookcases, and watched use the computer.  In the evening, Howard made a supper of pasta with venison meatballs.  We sat down to eat in the office room, so she could get use to us & our voices.  Within a minute or two, she emerged from her cat cave, and sat near Howard, attracted by the smells coming from his plate.  He allowed her a couple of meaty morsels.  Later, she followed him into the ensuite, where she was introduced to the litter tray and used it immediately.  That night, Howard made himself a bed on the floor by the desk and in the morning she was curled up by his feet.

Pumpkin had arrived home.



Thursday, 19 January 2017

A couple of meals from this week

So, the ham hock lasted us until Thursday lunchtime.

The last few cubes went on top of the pea & vegetable soup I made for supper yesterday.

So that's 16 servings from one very cheap cut of meat.

We had it as a pot roast on Sunday, thinly sliced.  Monday lunchtime more thin slices in sandwiches, with a thick vegetable soup made by putting the pot roast vegetable through a blender.

Then I finely cubed the rest of the meat, used a handful in a risotto for Monday night & Tuesday lunchtime, a slightly larger share for Tuesday night & Wednesday lunch in house favourite - Pig Sty Pie, then finally the remaining cubes & crumbs were used to top a lovely vegetable loaded pea soup.

Tonight, it's a veggie special - Sweet Potato Chilli & rice.  Friday & Saturday, as we don't have to consider packed lunch, will be comfort food one night only numbers again.

Next week is pre-pay day clear the freezer week.  So cuts of meat that don't need to last more than two meals (again thinking of what can be turned into a portable lunch) will be used up, and I can start to refill with stock to see us through the next few weeks.

Purest Green Soup

A fresher take on pea soup

2 Onions, (or large shallots) finely chopped

2 Leeks, thinly sliced

4 sticks of Celery, roughly chopped

½ medium Cabbage (preferably Savoy) shredded

1 litre frozen Peas

Pepper & small amount of salt

If using stock cube, omit salt

Soften prepared onions, leeks & celery in stovetop casserole dish in rapeseed oil.  
Put lid on & leave to sweat.

Add shredded cabbage & stir in.  Put lid back & soften cabbage.

Season mixture, plus enough water to bring to just below of ingredients so far, and 
if preferred add stock cube. Leave to warm through, then stir again.

Add peas on top of mixture.  Replace lid.

Allow to cook through until peas have defrosted, then mix in with rest of vegetables.

Simmer on very low heat for 30 minutes or so.

Can be served as it is, or put a hand blender through for a smooth green soup.

Serve with croutons, slivers of crispy bacon/ham, or grated cheese

(4 – 6 servings)




Pig Sty Pie

Like Shepherd’s or Cottage Pie, but with ham or bacon.  A great way to use up small 
amounts of vegetables & cooked ham

The Base

Onions, finely chopped
Celery, chopped

Approximately equal amounts of the following:
Cooked Ham Hock or Gammon, cubed
Sweetcorn (frozen is fine)
Peas (frozen)
Cabbage, chopped
Carrots, finely diced

Chopped Tomatoes or Passata

The Mash

2/3 Potatoes
1/3 Parsnips or Celeriac
Milk
Cheese

In a stovetop casserole, sweat off the onions & celery, in rapeseed oil if possible.

Add the ham & stir in. Cook until lightly browned at edges.

Add the cabbage & carrots & just enough water to cook them through.  Add the peas & sweetcorn, stir and keep cooking on a low heat.

Add the tomatoes or passata, stir through and cook on a low heat until the mixture is less watery.  Once cooked through, set to one side in dish.

Cook the parsnips (or celeriac) and potatoes & make the mash.  It needs to be a 
smooth mixture to cover the base, but not too loose so it does not sink down.

Cover the vegetable & ham mixture with the mash, rough up the top and cover with grated cheese.  Put in medium oven or under a grill to crisp & brown the top.

4 – 6 servings


Saturday, 14 January 2017

Menu Planning - First Week Over

Well, one week into menu planning.

It has made life easier in some ways.  We know what will be cooked several days ahead, so grocery shopping is more targeted for starters.

As evening meals Sunday through Thursday are all cooked from scratch, it has meant a bit more prep work, which is why I've factored in two easy nights on the days we don't have to considered Howard's packed lunch for the next day.

So we had:

Sunday
Breakfast - Croissant & coffee (that is chocolate filled hazelnut topped croissants from our excellent local bakers, Holtwhites Bakers, which Howards cycles over to on a Sunday morning to buy bread for the week).  It's become a tradition that we have croissant or Pain au Chocolat from there on a Sunday morning, while watching a gardening or nature programme to set us in a good mood for the day.

Lunch - Bacon sandwich.  Why not?

Supper - Breast of Lamb casserole.  A favourite cheap cut of meat.  People say it's fatty, but I cut most of that off (some was used to brown the onions & celery).  If you get the butcher to remove the bones, it's also a large amount of lean meat too, and tender if you cook it slowly in liquid.  I added carrots, kale, pearl barley and green lentils to the dish, which we served with mashed potatoes, to which we added what was leftover of the previous night's cauliflower cheese (home made cheese sauce)

Monday
Breakfast - Pain au Chocolat.  Hardest day of the week to get going, so why not start with something quick and comforting?

Lunch - Chunky Scotch Broth.  The casserole from last night, having had the larger pieces of meat used already, and the remaining mash stirred in to thicken the mixture.  Plus a slice of toast.

Supper - Scotch Broth with sourdough croutons.  Added some frozen broad beans to brighten it up.

Tuesday
Breakfast - Toast & yeast extract.  Quick & extra B vitamins.  Also, the cat goes mad for the melted butter and trace of savoury goodness left on the plate after.

Lunch - Scotch Broth (Yes, again)  There was still more left, which had the hand blend put through it briefly, then put in portion sized bags and frozen.

Supper - Leek and Potato Soup.  Had one massive leek, a few sticks of celery and three potatoes left from Sunday.  Fried the chopped leek and celery in rapeseed oil, cut the potatoes into tiny cubes, added a vegetable stock cube and enough water to just cover and cooked until the potatoes were soft, then put the hand blender through until smooth.  Served topped with grated cheese (a firm cheese with flakes of truffle we bought at a French cheese stall that was in Enfield shopping centre in the run-up to Christmas)

Wednesday
Breakfast - Porridge.  A bit more time, and the need to feel warm.  And a dollop of blueberry jam on top.

Lunch - Leek & Potato soup, plus a toasted cheese sandwich. (Again, remaining soup frozen)

Supper - Pea & Ham Soup.  Really & truly this should be made with dried split peas, but I did a quicker version.  Chopped and softened a mix of leeks & celery, then cubed a pack of what Sainsbury's call "cooking bacon" - basically mis-shapes and ends of bacon that are left from cutting into rashers. Once this was mixed and cooked down, I added half a pack of basics frozen peas and water to just below the top of the mixture, then set it on a long, low cook.  Served it as it was - whole peas - for supper, then used the hand blender once it had cooled down.

Thursday
Breakfast - Granola. Dorset Cereals Granola to be precise - one scoop each of chocolate & nuts.

Lunch - pea & ham soup & toast

Supper - Gnocchi in cheese sauce with peas.  Howard is starting to dislike how highly seasoned ready made sauces are, so I made a roux based cheese sauce just as I had for the cauliflower cheese I had made previously.  The one downside of this is you do realise that you need a third hand - one to hold the pan, one to add the milk, and a third to keep stirring the sauce.  Fortunately, Howard was able to add the milk while I stirred the sauce.  Used long life gnocchi from Lidl, and did two packs so we had enough for lunch.

Friday
Breakfast - Crumpets with yeast extract.  To give the cat a treat (licking the plate after) and we'd run out of bread)

Lunch - Gnocchi.  Have found that I hate the texture of reheated pasta, so thought this was worth a try.  OK, but had to add more milk to the sauce as if was solid once cooled down.

Supper - Fish fingers in buns.  Comfort food Friday!!  A slightly more sophisticated version of the fish finger sandwich.  In brioche burger buns, watercress and garlic mayonnaise.

Saturday
Breakfast - Crumpets.  Because we overslept and didn't have time to make buckwheat pancakes

Lunch - Oatcakes with cheese.  A couple with a strong cheddar, and a couple more with Gjetost - a Norwegian goats milk (whey) cheese the colour and texture of fudge.  Some say an acquired taste, but it's one I definitely have.

Supper - Penne pasta with beans in a tomato sauce.  Not so long back, this is the kind of thing we'd have for supper every night.  Pleasant, fairly wholesome (wholemeal pasta), but predictable.  Once a week or so, it doesn't seem as depressing.

So - a week of meals, with the exception of midweek breakfasts, all planned well ahead.  Have a ham hock and the vegetables ready to start next week's plan, and Howard is going to make the batter for buckwheat pancakes tonight, so it will be ready to use in the morning.


Sunday, 8 January 2017

The best way to keep to the plan is to make a plan

Well, the lamb casserole is slowly cooking away.  I'd phoned the butchers midweek to order a breast of lamb for this weekend.  I'd actually wanted a ham hock, but they had already sold out, so will pre order one for Howard to collect next week.  If I can keep to this, and just get the odd reduced aisle bargain from Waitrose or M&S (where you know it will be decent enough quality to be worth it) and freeze them, things will be much more ordered, and no more evenings when neither of us can face the kitchen so we end up having toast.

So I've made a Meal Plan template, and have already plotted out almost two weeks' worth of suppers & lunches - Sunday to Thursday cooking an evening meal that can be turned into lunch the following day, and something quicker on Friday & Saturday.