Friday, 31 January 2014

Everyone keeps saying how grey and dreary January has been.

I hadn't noticed.

However, if you do feel the year has got off to a soggy and depressing start don't worry because you get a second chance. Today is the start of the Chinese new year and to welcome the year of the horse we are eating sweet and sour horse chicken.

We are also scoffing these easy peasy crisp toffee chocolate bars.


I am so pleased that my last post sparked so many interesting and interested comments. It is good when the comment box becomes a conversation. I now have a tremendously long list of writers to try which feels a bit like having a huge pile of presents to open. Thank you to everyone who commented and recommended. I have decided to tackle something contemporary for February, I am going to be reading The Vanishing Act of Esmé Lennox by Maggie O' Farrell.

Reading List


Tuesday, 28 January 2014

I can never resist studying a reading list to see how many I can tick off. Daft really because the vast majority of books on those lists are ones I have no desire to ever read no matter how well regarded they are. This list for example seems particularly bossy -1000 novels everyone must read, why must I read them and who says so? And what about 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, when else would you read them?  And as for The Top 100 Books of All Time, good lord, my brain hurts just looking at some of those titles. The BBC Big Read seems to go to the other extreme -I counted Jacqueline Wilson's name at least 13 times- but this is a list of books people actually enjoy reading and I have read more on this list than any other. I made my own alternative list.

Books I Will Never Read 
(Some of these have been attempted)
Anything by Virginia Woolf
Anything by Jodi Picoult
Any science fiction
A Clockwork Orange
War and Peace
Anna Karenina
Catch 22
The Great Gatsby
Of Mice and Men
To Kill a Mocking Bird (please don't hate me!)
Catcher In the Rye
Les Miserables
Finnegan's Wake
Brave New World
Heart of Darkness
The Handmaid's Tale
Satanic Verses
A Song of Ice and Fire
And many more

So, reading lists don't work for me, nor do reading groups. I was a member of one about 13 years ago and liked (but not that much) only one book out of the ten or so I stuck it out for. I didn't even finish the others which included books by Ian McEwan and Donna Tartt. Reading books I haven't chosen myself doesn't work for me, neither does reading a book I hate to the bitter end.

I do want new things to read though, and I want to read more mindfully. When I saw Laura's A Year In Books I knew I'd have to join in. One book for each month of my own choosing, perfect. But what to choose?

My overwhelming preference is for the woman's middlebrow novel of the first half of the last century. I also enjoy some Victorian and Edwardian literature, a few contemporary authors, and crime. My crime preferences tend to be for women authors. Actually I seem to prefer women writers in general. I like domestic settings, descriptions of home comforts and of meals (especially that), of gardens and the countryside. I am regrettably xenophobic when choosing reading matter, I like British settings and British authors. But not always. I tend not to go for great drama, but in an effort to branch out a bit I chose Rebecca as my January read.

I can't think how I've managed not to read any Daphne Du Maurier before. Now that I have I shall certainly read more. I shall take at least one with me to Cornwall this summer. I haven't seen any screen adaptations of the novel but I have seen a few clips here and there and therefore had a rough idea of what it was about. I knew the narrator and heroine was not Rebecca but an unnamed second wife to Maxim de Winter, I knew Rebecca was his first wife and that she is dead before the story begins, I knew also that there was a sinister housekeeper called Mrs Danvers, and that the story takes place at a large house called Manderley. And of course I knew the first line of the book 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again'.

Rebecca would make a good book to read after Jane Eyre. Unsurprisingly it's a much less challenging read, a reward perhaps for finishing Jane. Rebecca is an echo of Jane Eyre, the same, yet different. I'm sure there's been an exam question 'Jane Eyre and Rebecca -compare and contrast paying particular attention to the themes of madness, jealousy and sense of place.

 I read more than one book a month, depending on the length of the book of course, so alongside my book of the month I am going to read all 12 of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple books* in order of publication. A bit of light relief really, not that I intend to read anything too heavy this year. I've read a lot of Christie but never the Miss Marples. Thanks to the tv adaptations in the 1980s I know whodunnit in each one but I'm finding that isn't spoiling my enjoyment of the Murder At the Vicarage one bit.

What about you? What are you reading right now and how do you decide what to read next? Do you challenge yourself to read outside your comfort zone or do you like to read the same sort of books?

* All bought second-hand from Amazon for £2.81 each -actually I used a gift voucher so they were mostly free.

Pots of Sunshine


Friday, 24 January 2014

On the 24th of January 2010 I wrote my first post. Today four years later I am writing my six hundredth post. Coincidentally (not really) this post is also about marmalade. The bitter Seville orange is probably the last truly seasonal fruit. They are not available at any other time of the year, or, as far as I know in any other country, I don't think they are even eaten in Spain where they grow.  

 Today I made eight jars of the lovely orange stuff. I followed Delia's instructions again using 2½ lb of oranges, 5 pints water and 5 lbs sugar (ordinary granulated not golden granulated) and the juice of 1½ lemons. My oranges are from Waitrose and are cheaper now than four years ago at £2.29 a kilo. I wonder if there has been a rise in demand due to widespread marmalade blogging? Not only were the oranges cheaper but they came in a fabulous blue box. 

Why not seize the day and bag yourself some Seville oranges before they disappear for another year? There really is no more satisfying way to chase a wet and miserable January day away than to fill your kitchen with the scent of oranges and the colour of sunshine.

Four years and six hundred posts about domesticity and quinces. Golly. It's been hugely enjoyable, tremendously rewarding but absolutely nothing without you out there reading and commenting. Thank you for making the connection, joining the conversation and for giving the act of blogging a point. Let's keep doing it.

Rhubarb Crumble


Monday, 20 January 2014

Rhubarb (beautiful forced English rhubarb from Evesham), ginger and cream, three ingredients which suggested several delicious possibilities for our weekend pudding. Fool, trifle, ice cream, mousse, cheesecake. I considered all of these, briefly. But there was never really any question, it was always going to be crumble. Crumble is the best thing to do with rhubarb whatever the annoying celebrity chefs tell you. Simple, straightforward and no twists whatsoever. New ideas are all very well but only if there is something wrong with the old ideas.

Rhubarb, chopped and tossed in sugar and little ground ginger.
In a baking dish.

Crumble - 8 oz plain flour with 3-4 oz butter rubbed in until it resembles breadcrumbs.
Stir in 3-4 oz soft brown sugar (or whatever sugar you have) and a bit more ground ginger if you like.
Tip over the rhubarb, bake for 30 -40 minutes at 190°c (170°fan oven).

Serve with the cream. Or custard.
Much less trouble to make than this and frankly nicer.

Works for any fruit but particularly fruit that grows well in England -apples, pears, plums, damsons, blackberries, raspberries, currants, quinces. Harder fruit (ie quinces) need cooking first.
That said bananas are good addition to an apple and mincemeat crumble in winter and tinned peaches are quite good in a crumble especially with raspberries. You can of course add nuts, oats and ground almonds to the crumble.

This is the last of my ingredients posts following on from this post. There might be more in the future but not four in quick succession. Photographing and writing about what you ate everyday, even for just four days is hard work and rapidly becomes a chore. Thank you though for your lovely comments, I hope my recipe ideas are helpful.

Lamb, Chickpeas, Hummus, Yogurt and Mint


Saturday, 18 January 2014

I love lamb with Middle-Eastern/North African flavours. I bought some za'atar recently which is a blend of sumac, sesame seeds and thyme. I added some to the pitta bread and the lamb but I didn't add enough to either for it to make its presence felt. I think you need to be generous with it and make something like these breads. I was generous with the baharat  though which I love.

To make the lamb I simply fried some onions in butter, added the baharat and the lamb and let it cook until the lamb was browned. Then I added the chickpeas (dried chickpeas which I had soaked, cooked and frozen, tinned are fine too), a handful of sultanas and some flaked almonds and cooked it for a while longer.

I still have mint growing in my garden. I mixed it with cucumber, spring onions and yogurt. Unfortunately the mint may still be green and growing but it is not minty. I wished I'd bought supermarket mint.

For the third day running I found myself making bread for supper. Not very balanced, and all white bread at that, but homemade pittas are well worth making. This was the first time I'd made them and if you are used to bread-making then they couldn't be easier. I used exactly the same ingredients as for my pizza dough here.
After it had risen I divided it into eight lumps and rolled it out thinly into rough circles . I then baked them on a baking tray in a very hot oven -as hot as it goes- 230°c (210°c fan oven) for 5 mins. They puff up spectacularly. I did them in three batches and wrapped them in a cloth to keep them soft and they were fabulous.

We spread them with smoked hummus which we hadn't tried before - we will stick to unsmoked in future*, we spooned the lamb mixture over the hummus and finished with the cucumber and mint yogurt. We ate them with our hands, all except Charlie who resolutely used and knife and fork.  We also tried splitting the pittas and filling them which was much easier than splitting bought pittas.

Variations on a theme

For a vegetarian version leave out the meat and add more chickpeas or vegetables
Use pine nuts instead almonds, dried apricots instead of sultanas, beef instead of lamb.

Forget the bread and hummus and mix the lamb mixture with cooked rice or serve it with couscous.

Instead of a Middle-Eastern flavour try an Indian one. Leave out the hummus and the baharat, make the lamb into a keema curry and crack open the mango chutney. the pittas are soft enough to stand in for naan bread.

*My favourite hummus is Waitrose's Moroccan hummus.

Smoked Haddock, Leeks, Cheddar and Cream


Friday, 17 January 2014

There was also crusty white bread which we ate with these lovely ingredients and which I forgot to photograph.

A chowder-like soup with cubes of potato added was a possibility but I made something similar not long ago and didn't feel like it again. I thought too of making a tart but I had a craving for a creamy, cheesy sauce to scoop up with my crusty bread so I simply put leeks which had been cooked briefly in a little water* in a baking dish and topped them with the haddock which I had cooked in milk, and then made cheese sauce with the haddocky milk, the cheddar and a little cream. I poured the sauce over the haddock and leeks and put it in the oven to brown.

It was very good.

Variations on a theme

Replace the leeks with wilted spinach. Or mushrooms.
Replace the smoked haddock with another smoked fish.
Replace the fish with cooked chicken, ham or bacon.
For a vegetarian version crack eggs onto the leeks. These will only take a few minutes to set so keep your eye on them.
Forget the bread and spread the leeks and haddock over mashed potato before topping with the cheese sauce.
Serve with baked spuds instead of bread.
Top with ready made puff pastry or roll out shortcrust and line a tart tin, bake it blind before filling with the haddock, leeks and cheese sauce.
Top with a scone crust to make a savoury cobbler.
Cook pasta, mix with the leeks and haddock before stirring in the sauce and baking.

*I froze the water I cooked the leeks in for future soup.

Butternut squash, Mozzarella, Slow-cooked Onions, Kale


Thursday, 16 January 2014

I made pizza. Butternut squash, onion and mozzarella pizza. The kale I served separately. Butternut squash and kale pizza is popular but I was pretty sure it wouldn't be in my house. So, I kept the kale away from the pizza. Even so, they were sceptical. 'Pizza!' I proclaimed, 'yeah, but it isn't really is it?' They ate it all though.

I cooked a load of onions, 4 or 5 I think, slowly in butter until sweet and delicious.
I peeled and diced the squash, tossed it in a little olive oil and roasted it in a hot oven long enough for the squash to become soft and begin to char around the edges slightly - about 20 -30 minutes.
I made some pizza dough using 500g of strong white flour, 1 teaspoon of easy-blend yeast, 1 teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of olive oil and about 300ml of warm water.
When the dough had risen I divided in two and rolled it thinly to fit my pizza trays. These are about 30cm in diameter.
I topped the pizzas with the onions, the squash, a little leftover grated parmesan and one ball of torn mozzarella per pizza. I sprinkled them with sea salt and baked at 230°c (210°c fan oven ) for 20 minutes.

And then I massaged the kale.

Massaging kale is a perfectly normal thing to do. It is really. See it's all over Pinterest. What you do is tear it into bite-sized pieces, put it in a bowl, add a little olive oil and some lemon juice plus some salt and massage the oil and lemon into the kale for 3 or 4 minutes. This is a pleasant soothing task. As you massage the kale it loses its healthier than thou worthiness and becomes pliant and sweet. The kale is seduced.
I added some toasted pecans and much to my surprise both Katie and Charlie ate large helpings. The boys were not persuaded. All in all a delicious meal and one which I will repeat.


You don't have to make pizza dough, you could use ready made pizza bases or other flatbreads, naan bread for example. Or, you could use ready made puff pastry and call it a tart and that way it will not only be delicious but you won't have people saying  'but it isn't really a pizza is it?'

Swap the mozzarella for blue cheese, add walnuts or pecans.
Swap the squash for sweet potato.
Add the kale to the pizza if you are feeding less fussy people than I am.
Add crumbled sausage or bacon.

Other Ideas

Cook some pasta, something like rigatoni or penne, mix it in a baking dish with the roasted squash, the cooked onion and lumps of mozzarella. Bake just long enough for the mozzarella to melt. Or forget the mozzarella and make cheese sauce using a well flavoured hard cheese and turn it into a fabulous macaroni cheese.

Steam or boil the squash instead of roasting it, mash it with an equal quantity of boiled potatoes. Layer it in a baking dish with the onions and mozzarella. Bake until the mozzarella melts.

Add some roast squash to the massaged kale, keep the nuts in for crunch. Try some crumbled feta or bacon too for salty contrast.

Notes on Eating


Tuesday, 14 January 2014

 When you cook for a family it is easy to get into a rut with your menus. Pleasing everyone isn't always easy especially when they are way past the 'eat it all up or there'll be no pudding' stage (there rarely is pudding these days). We've got into a rut so I'm making an effort to try some new ideas out on my family and to not fall back on the old favourites too often. I'm searching for new favourites. I'm pulling my many cookbooks off the shelves and looking for inspiration. I'm consulting my Pinterest food boards, I'm typing lists of ingredients into google to see what comes up, and I'm food shopping.

A trip to Whole Foods in Cheltenham last week with friends provided me with lots of inspiration. There were the delicious burritos we had for lunch stuffed with rice, black beans, shredded pork, vegetables, chilies, sour cream and cheese. They are sure to go down well with the teenagers and I will be making my own version soon. Then there were the free samples of salty-sweet popcorn which I will also be recreating at home. I tasted a green smoothie and found it to be unexpectedly delicious. I bought one to have at home for breakfast the next day and felt virtuous for the rest of the week. I'm seriously thinking of making my own green smoothies, just for me.

Green smoothie
Apple, kale, spinach, kiwi, banana, lemon and ginger

I'm doing something else in my quest for culinary inspiration. I've started a five year cook's diary. It most definitely isn't a food diary, those soul-destroying accounts of every calorie ingested. It's a record of what I cook each day (most days). Not just meals but baking and preserving as well. I'll be able to see if I was making quince jelly at the same time each year, when I cooked the first asparagus of the year, or the first forced rhubarb as well as how often we end up having the same things over and over.

I haven't made any firm menu plans for the next few days. Instead I have grouped ingredients I think will work well together and we'll see what happens.

Smoked haddock, leeks, cheddar, cream, crusty white bread

Butternut squash, mozzarella, slow cooked onions, kale

Minced lamb, za'atar, smoked hummus, chickpeas, flat bread, mint, yogurt

Cod, lentils, bacon, mash

Sweet potato, curry paste, coconut milk

Forced rhubarb, cream, ginger

As for tonight's meal - spaghetti bolognese. Apparently one of the most commonly eaten family meals in the country according to The Daily Mail. We have it rarely, honest gov, so it's a bit of a treat in our house, also I don't read The Daily Mail except by accident.



Monday, 6 January 2014

Christmas has been packed away for nearly a week now and a new year begun.
A new year must have resolutions. Here are mine:

1) I resolve not to embark on a fitness programme of any sort. My once a week hour of Pilates and a few strolls around the block are quite enough for me thank you.

2) I resolve not to take up smoking. I think this will be pretty easy.

3) I resolve not to go on a diet in any shape or form.

4) I resolve, like Ali, to eat only delicious food.

5) I resolve not to drink less alcohol.

6) I resolve not to drink less coffee

7) I resolve to keep buying cookery books no matter how many I already own. Ditto yarn.

8) I resolve not to go camping.

I'm already really good at all these so I anticipate a high success rate for my 2014 resolutions. Go me.
With resolutions numbers 3 and 4 in mind I have marked Twelfth Night with a Galette des Rois to which I had added chocolate chips.

Chilli Chocolate Biscuits


Sunday, 5 January 2014

 A crisp chocolate biscuit with chocolate chips and warmed up with cayenne, cloves, cinnamon and ginger. They may not look madly exciting but don't let that fool you. The cayenne gives them a subtle but definite kick and the other spices provide depth and interest to the chocolate.

They're based on Mary Berry's fork biscuits from her Ultimate Cake Book which is my baking bible (much more useful and reliable than Domestic Goddess).

This is the recipe with my adaptations in bold.
Makes 32 biscuits

8 oz (230g)  soft butter
4 oz  (115g) caster sugar I substituted dark soft brown sugar
9 oz (250g) self-raising flour
1 oz (30g) cocoa powder
½ teaspoon ground cayenne
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
6 oz (170g) plain chocolate chips

Beat the butter and sugar together by hand or with electric beaters until well combined.

Add the flour, cocoa powder and spices and mix into the butter-sugar mixture. I do this with electric beaters, it looks wrong to begin with as the mixture is a floury, crumby mess but keep going and the crumbs will become less floury and more like biscuit dough.

Add the chocolate chips, work them into the dough with your hands and bring together into a ball.

Make walnut sized balls of dough, place them on baking trays which you have greased or lined with reusable baking liners. squash each ball of dough down a bit with your hand or a fork.

Bake for 20 minutes at 180°c (160°c fan oven).

Allow to cool for a few minutes on the trays before lifting off with a palette knife to cool and get crisp on a cooling rack.

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