Friday, 12 May 2017

How does your garden grow? Spring 2017

Isn't it exciting when little seeds you've planted start cautiously unfurling stalks and leaves, and turning into proper plants?  Most of my vegetable planting is now done for the spring, so I thought I'd update you with what's in this year.

I used some plastic sheets to turn my vegetable boxes into mini greenhouses, which I'd like to think helped with the germinating process.  One unexpected thing which sprouted were half a dozen courgette plants, which I assume are the same ones that never came up last year.  I transplanted them to some pots, where one has already been savaged by slugs.



The seeds that I did expect were spring onions, carrots and rocket, which have duly come up in neat little rows.  I haven't tried carrots before; they're supposed to be good companions for spring onions in some mutually beneficial way, so I'll put in another couple of rows soon and see how they go.

tiny spring onions and carrots


tomatoes and rocket

Other plants have been bought in.  Someone in the village put a mini-greenhouse-full of tomato plants outside their house, with an honesty box for charity, so I acquired four for a good cause.  The peas were a garden centre bargain - £2 for a tray which contained far more than I needed.  I do hope they do well, as I rather fancy podding my own peas.  I can't remember when I last ate peas from a pod - can you?

dwarf peas

Last year I coaxed strawberry runners from my old plants into growing by themselves.  The old plants died off, but the new ones are doing well.  When I turned the compost out of the old strawberry pots, I discovered it was full of woodlouse larvae, which may have had something to do with the demise of the strawberries.  Are they bad for plants?  I suspect ants of living in the other pots, which I wouldn't have thought would be much good for the plants, but so far they don't seem to be doing any harm.

strawberry flowers
So that's my attempt at self-sustainability this year.  How about you?  Are you growing anything?

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Monthly Munch: April 2017

Looking back, it seems like lots of nice things have happened this month.  My diary records sunny afternoons with friends; discussions about 'what is poetry?' and 'what if Jesus hadn't been raised to life?'; visits to and from parents; a stop-off at Stratford-upon-Avon (nice town, even if you don't do anything Shakespearean); Easter bonnets, Easter biscuits, Easter church; parks, plants, parties; and my first attempt at ten-pin bowling in a long time.  (Since you ask: No.  I was awful.  But we had fun.)
Helping with a lock gate on the Stratford Canal

In the interests of keeping it real, this month has also included tantrums, whinging, fights, bleeding from the head, food on the floor, a screw in a car tyre, and me failing to get a job I interviewed for.  You didn't really think we had it that easy, did you?

Life goes up and down...


Toby



- got his silver award for achieving 600 Dojo [award] points.

- learned to do Sudoku puzzles with Grandpop.

They liked 'bouncing bubbles' from Grandma & Grandad

- is practising A and B on the recorder.

- wants us to time how fast he can do everything.

"Time me to run across the aqueduct and back!"

- carefully counts his money.  He's saving for more Lego.


Theo



- started going to preschool three mornings a week, and goes in without a backward glance.

- rarely needs the pushchair now, except for the 'double dash' where I have to cover the mile between school and preschool in 15 minutes.

Still likes sweets - and barbeques

- always has to help stir the dinner.  Doesn't mean he eats it, mind you!

Adding pepper to bean chilli


Thankful for:

 - Graham finding a garage to fit a new tyre half an hour before they shut for Easter weekend - and they gave us free Easter eggs!

- finding a beautiful new place to walk: Blithfield Reservoir, near Uttoxeter.

photo of a woodpecker from the bird hide at Blithfield


- a new net for our old trampoline (finally fitted after I ordered the wrong size and had to return it...)

Recipe of the Month: Orange and Ginger Cake with Marmalade Glaze



I adapted a recipe for marmalade cake, to try and use up a jar of chopped ginger in sugar syrup that has been sitting in my fridge for ages.  The result is not too orangey, not too gingery, just a light and delicate mix of both.

6 oz butter, softened
3 oz sugar
2 eggs
2 oz chopped ginger in syrup
5 oz marmalade, plus extra to glaze
10 oz self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
zest and juice of one orange

Preheat oven to 180°C.  Grease and base line a loaf tin.

Cream together the butter and sugar, then beat in the eggs, one at a time.  Add the remaining ingredients and mix well, adding more orange juice (or milk) if needed to give a soft consistency.

Scoop into the loaf tin and bake for about 45 minutes or until firm.  Leave to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then put a couple of teaspoons of marmalade on top of the warm cake, and smear it around so that it melts to form a glaze.  Remove the cake from the tin and let it cool on a wire rack.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Visions of Delight

As homework for the writing group I've joined, we each drew three cards from an envelope: a person, a place and a thing.  Our task then was to link these three randomly chosen items together to form a short story.

I picked an angel, a guard's van and a whip.  What would you have made of that? 
This is where my creative juices took me...

[For those of you who didn't grow up in the UK in the late 20th century, you may need to know that the names mentioned in the final paragraph are brands of instant pudding mix.]


Visions of Delight

In the guard’s van, Ted relaxed back in his chair.  His duties done for the evening, there was nothing more to worry about until the train reached Carlisle in two hours’ time.  Usually he’d pick up a newspaper to pass the time.  Tonight, though, he was tired.  His eyes settled on the dark night swishing past the window, as his mind vaguely toyed with the options for his midnight snack.  The train wheels rumbled rhythmically, and the black world went flying by…

…And the reflected lights in the window shifted and moved.  Ted blinked, peered, blinked again.  As if they were walking towards him out of the night, two figures appeared.  One was as upright as a flame, a cloak of shining white covering a dazzling suit of chain mail.  He held a long sword poised, its deadly point glittering.  The other person was hidden in shadow.  Only a few features showed redly, as if reflecting the light of an invisible fire.  Hooded and gaunt, he seemed more absent than present.  Then a glowing line bit through the air, and Ted realised this figure was armed with a whip.

The white-cloaked soldier retaliated instantly, with a mighty sweep of his sword.  It seemed as if the shadow must have been sliced in two, yet somehow he was still standing, recoiling his whip for its next vicious slash.  On his head, an odd shape caught the light for an instant: a horn? A pair of of horns?  He whirled, and it was gone, lost in the darkness behind the fiery whip.

Yet Ted was not altogether surprised when the soldier turned for a moment, revealing on his back a sheaf of snowy feathers.  He knew now who was fighting, and watched in vivid fascination as the battle unfolded.  The slashes and jabs carried a fierceness he had never before seen; yet the fight continued in utter silence, as if more than a pane of glass separated him from the contenders.

The whip was suddenly everywhere at once.  Bright slashes blazed criss-cross over Ted’s vision, like a swarm of angry bees surrounding a shadowy hive.  Squinting, he could just see the hooded figure with its tell-tale horns, skinny arms lashing, back hunched with determination.  Every blow drove the soldier back a step. His sword looked frail, his cloak shredded at the hem.  But his eyes were intent, watching for his chance.  There it was.  The whip caught, for no more than an instant.  And in that instant, the sword was driving forward, and the shadow writhed on its point, and the soldier’s great white wings spread wide, wider…

…And with a great rush and a clatter, the lights of a station splashed across the window, and then there was nothing but the dark outside.  Ted stretched, and rubbed his eyes.  His glance fell on a couple of packets, laid on the table.  He chuckled.  “Guess it’s Angel Delight for tonight, then,” he murmured to himself.  He reached over, put the packet of Instant Whip back in his bag, and started to pour milk into a bowl.

Image result for wikimedia angel delight

Friday, 7 April 2017

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

Sometimes it seems frivolous to write about recipes and the small events of my own life, when in other parts of the world, awful things are happening and other people's families are being ripped apart.  Sometimes the knowing seems to demand a response, or even a responsibility, to look up from my own affairs for a moment, to say yes, I see this, however powerless I feel to do anything about it.

And I wrote that paragraph yesterday, thinking of the chemical attacks in Syria.  But now there's Stockholm.  And whichever day you read this, there will be something else.  The task of making peace seems too enormous to contemplate.


Maybe we should make cheese instead.  Many years ago, I stayed with a family in Romania who became my friends.  I spoke very little Romanian, though some of them spoke English, and many things in their house were very different to mine.  Welcoming as they were, it was hard to feel at home until the evening we made a cake.  Sitting together, passing a bowl of thickening cream around as we took turns beating it with a hand whisk, simply melted away language barriers and cultural differences.  It's hard to be a foreigner to someone you have cooked with.

Unfortunately, I had no one new to share my first experience of making cheese with.  But it was a cheese from a different culture, if that counts.  Theo gave his baby bottle away and unexpectedly decided that this meant his milk intake should fall to zero.  So I had 8 pints of whole milk to use up in a hurry.  My Indian cookbooks assured me that paneer is very easy to make, so what did I have to lose?  I boiled the milk for the requisite five minutes, added a few spoonfuls of lemon juice - slightly sceptically, I have to admit - and to my surprise, it separated neatly into lumpy curds swimming in a yellowish liquid.  I drained it in a net that I usually use for making jelly, squeezed it flat with a saucepan, and I had my very own paneer!  I felt like the pressing could have been improved on, as it was a bit crumbly, but it tasted fine.



Blessed are the peacemakers.  They need all the help they can get.  But when making peace seems far too difficult, maybe we can be a blessing by making cheese together instead.

Dove image: By Darolu Dove siluette from Vervexca Peace Dove.svg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Monthly Munch: March 2017

We've had some lovely warm sunny days (interspersed with hail and rain!) and the clocks have changed, so it's feeling like spring.  We seized the chance to attempt a "proper" walk on a beautiful cloudless Sunday, and successfully ascended Win Hill in the Peak District.  It was a lovely climb up through woods by a little stream.  We had a grand panorama to eat our lunch by, and a ramble along little lanes and through fields to return to the car.




Toby



- lost his first two teeth!  Actually he went to the dentist and she said, "get those wobbly ones out", so they weren't so much lost as well and truly yanked.


 - finally got Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from the library, and devoured it.

- bounded up Win Hill ahead of us all.  He still had energy left at the end!



- was proud of his rocket booster for a "Bling a Bottle" project at school.


- has had a story he wrote at school highly commended.  His teacher showed it to the headteacher and the Year 6 class!

Theo



- got the chickenpox.  It seems like every kid in the village has had it, so it was hardly a surprise.  Fortunately he only had a couple of days of being properly miserable.



- loves a book called Chocolate Mousse for Greedy Goose, and can recite it (complete with funny voices).

- made it round the whole of the Win Hill walk with no complaints.  Fortunately the last bit was muddy which got him excited again (although you should have seen both boys' shoes...)


- now that the weather's warmer, is rocking the hat, mittens and T-shirt look.


Thankful for:


- our boiler managing to break on the warmest days of the year so far!  It was an issue we've had before, so a quick fix - for now, anyway.



- lovely cards and presents from my boys on Mother's Day.


Recipe of the Month: Fish in tomato sauce



I'm rather enjoying Alex Mackay's Cookbook for Everybody Everyday - a library find that I may have to pay actual money for at some point.  This is a much-simplified version of a recipe which you are supposed to make with a home-made tomato compote.  That'll be a jar of pasta sauce then.  Plus, when I assured the boys that yes, it was exactly the same stuff which I put on their pasta, they were much more motivated to eat it.  It's a doddle to make and you can even leave the breadcrumbs off if you want to make it easier (or gluten-free).

500g jar of chunky pasta sauce
4 frozen (or fresh) white fish fillets (pollock, cod or similar)
20-30g butter
breadcrumbs from a slice of bread (roughly)

Preheat the oven to 180C.  Get a baking dish big enough to hold all your fish fillets in a layer.  Tip the jar of pasta sauce into it, and spread it out evenly.  Put the fish on top.

In a small frying pan, melt the butter and then stir in the breadcrumbs.  Keep stirring till they're just golden.  Spoon them on top of the fish, trying to keep them mostly out of the sauce (that just makes them go soggy).  Put the dish in the oven for about 30-35 minutes for frozen fish, maybe 15 for fresh.

We ate ours with mashed potato and peas.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Red Nose Day Maltesers Cake

When I saw that Maltesers was donating £5 to Comic Relief for every cake made in their #bakeamillion challenge, it seemed like a better than usual reason to make a chocolate cake!  The devil's food cake I'd tried for Theo's birthday was so good that I didn't need much persuasion to bake it again.  The original recipe made a BIG cake.  So in the interests of all our waistlines, I halved the quantities this time.  And of course, adorned it with Maltesers.



Devil's Food Cake
Recipe adapted from Green and Black's Chocolate Recipes.  Apart from halving it, I reduced the amount of sugar and avoided mixing the cocoa with the cold water.  In my experience, all this does is give you a brown sludge which is hard to get out of the measuring jug.  I don't see how that improves the quality of the cake.

175g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
pinch of salt
50g cocoa powder
200ml cold water
125g margarine or shortening
200g sugar
2 large eggs

Preheat oven to 180°C.  Sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt and cocoa.

Cream the margarine and sugar together until light and very soft.  Whisk the eggs, then add to the creamed mixture a little at a time, beating well.  Add the flour mixture alternately with the cold water to give a light airy batter.  

Scoop into a greased and base-lined 8-inch round tin, and bake for 30-35 minutes.  Leave to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then on a wire rack. Decorate as desired.


Saturday, 11 March 2017

Lake District photo dump

Day 1:

We stopped at Rufford Old Hall for a lunch break on the drive up.  We enjoyed the drifts of snowdrops, the very friendly volunteers, and the binoculars!  When we arrived at Grange-over-Sands, we went for an evening walk along the promenade.





Day 2:

We went on the Windermere Lake Cruise, starting off on the top deck and retreating to underneath the seats, and ultimately the covered lower deck when it began to rain.





Day 3:

We spent the morning at the very well-stocked Lakeland Motor Museum, packed with cars, bikes, motorbikes, toy cars and much more.  Then we drove up to Skelwith Bridge for lunch (the cafe we had hoped to go to was packed out, so we had a picnic instead) and walked along the River Brathay.  There was a small but fierce waterfall, and the boys enthusiastically dissected a rotting tree. It took so long to drive back down the M6 that we were forced to stop at McDonalds for tea.









Thursday, 2 March 2017

Monthly Munch: February 2017

Most of the photos this month were either of Theo's birthday or our short break in the Lake District, which I will tell you about soon, I promise.  We also went for a walk up Streatley Hill with my parents (last time we did that, Toby was in a baby sling!) and ate both British and American pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.  And finally, the spring flowers are starting to appear!  My favourite time of year.



Toby


- has become very interested in big numbers, especially googolplex.  He wanted to know whether googolplex was larger than infinity.

- is getting quite good at an app called Cute Munchies, a logic puzzle where you navigate small creatures round a kind of maze.

- enjoyed looking at VERY EXPENSIVE cars with Graham, on a recent visit to my parents'.  (No, we haven't suddenly got rich.)


- can ride one-handed on his bike.

- found the biggest tyre ever at Lakeland Motor Museum.


Theo


- is getting going on his balance bike pretty well

- calls fried eggs "Friday eggs".  He used to call boiled eggs "eggshell eggs" and still prefers them to any other kind.

Where's my eggs?

- visited a friend's house and wore her child-size oven mitts the whole time.  Do you think naming him after a chef has had an effect?

- loves wearing the Batman mask he got in a McDonalds meal - although he usually refers to it as Super Spy Chase from Paw Patrol.



Thankful for:

- being able to join a new Christian writers' group - it was fascinating to meet so many people writing in so many different ways.

- getting to play a National Trust grand piano at Rufford Old Hall.

Glad I don't have to wear one of these, though!
- help and advice from several people as I'm trying to kickstart my career again.

Recipe of the Month: Chocolate Cherry Trifle


I'd had some chocolate cake offcuts in the freezer for so long I couldn't even remember which cake they came from.  So I thought it was about time to use them for something delicious.  Here is my very precise and elegant trifle recipe.

Bits of chocolate cake
1 packet black cherry jelly (Jello)
Custard powder, sugar and milk (or ready-made custard, or vanilla pudding mix)
Sugar sprinkles
Squirty cream

Make the custard first so it has more time to cool.  Follow the packet instructions to make 1 pint, going generous on the custard powder to make it nice and thick.  Set aside to cool.

Break or chop the cake into chunks and put in the bottom of a large bowl.  You don't want it too packed in - mine came out a bit solid because I was trying to use the cake up, but if I'd had some canned cherries I would have used less cake and added the fruit.

Make the jelly following the packet instructions.  Pour over the cake and put in the fridge to set.  If the cake was frozen this obviously speeds up the setting process.

When the jelly is set and the custard is at least lukewarm, if not completely cold, remove any skin from the custard and pour it over the jelly layer.  Press clingfilm over the custard to prevent any more skin forming.  Refrigerate until cold.

If everyone likes cream, you can put proper whipped cream all over the top.  Half the people in my house won't eat it, so I put sprinkles over the custard and let the boys add squirty cream as they wished (a great treat!).