Monday, 15 April 2019

Blackbirds and Eggs

Hello! Thank you for your kind comments on my last post, helping me out with the identification of my Spiraea "Bridal Wreath/Veil", and generally buoying me up with your kindness and warmth. The Easter holidays are rumbling along quite pleasingly here. Week one was super productive as I powered through my to do list; passports were renewed, admin dealt with, trips made to post office, car garage, vets, and tedious financial jobs attended to. And now John is on holiday and his parents are staying with us for the week, and I've declared myself on holiday too.

Don't be fooled by the glow of morning light on the herbs on kitchen windowsill - while still sunny, it's turned very cold, with a sharp north-east wind cutting through any warmth in the spring sunshine. 

I spent some pleasant hours stitching this blackbird embroidery hoop last week, from the latest spring Craftpod. It's been a long time since I did much hand sewing and I'd forgotten how good it is for me, how much I enjoy the process of the embroidery while my brain can wander here and there, half listening to the radio, half concentrating on the task in front of me. Very mindful, very soothing.

I like this hoop a lot; the colours, the bird, the eggs - it all feels so cheerful and optimistic.

My good luck with second hand books continued this week, when my parents returned from their holiday with some gems for me: a copy of Tender, by Nigel Slater, and two more Observer guides to add to my collection. The copy of Tender is well thumbed and much loved, falling open on well-used pages, but this just makes me want to use it more. The most enchanting parts of the book for me so far are the photos of Slater's incredible garden. Long, narrow and sheltered, it's beautifully planted and feels more secluded than you'd imagine for a terrace in central London, and so much more grown-up than our wide, square lawn, littered with footballs and bordered with shrubs and battered tulips. 

You'll notice a few duplicates in my collection, but happily I've arranged to swap them with friends. It's win-win.

Bella had a friend from school sleep over last week. She took so much pleasure in getting everything ready, making up the beds, choosing snacks, planning what they'd do. She suddenly seemed awfully grown up.

But then I took this photo earlier today at Fort Nelson...

This museum is just a few miles away and we go there so often (it's free and ideal on rainy days) but I still love this room, the kitchen, the best. 

I'm still working on my shawl. It seems to be taking absolutely ages to make, and I think it's going to be really big when it's finished.  I'm really enjoying the pattern and colour pooling though. 

I decided recently that my Easter decorating game could be so much stronger, and bought some wooden eggs with hooks, to hang from an Easter tree. When I say Easter tree, I mean a few dusty old branches of pussy willow that I have had for about four years. I bought these smaller ones and these larger eggs. I really like them plain, as they are, but sprayed a few white and copper for a bit of variation. I might crochet a couple of eggs too, if I have time.

Angus spent £3 of his pocket money on a little travel version of Battleships last week. Every night, he and John are hunched over the kitchen table, plotting moves. It warms my heart.

I'll leave you with a photo of Ziggy and his adorable nose. This was taken in Bella's room, where he'll spend as much of his time as he can, curled up on her bed. He sneaks upstairs early in the morning and she lets him into her room to sleep on the end of her bed. It's a good thing she's an early riser. 

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Pockets of Lovely

That's the best way I can describe the last few weeks: 90% nose to the grindstone, but with pockets of loveliness that make everything okay. Better than okay. 

The two weeks leading up to the end of term were exhausting: full days, busy evenings and weekends, while fighting off (and eventually succumbing to) a horrible head cold. The Mother's Day weekend was a little ray of actual sunshine in the middle of it all and we spent most of it gardening and doing jobs outside.

The first gardening weekend of the the year is always a big one, so quite a few hours were spent cutting, weeding, tidying, sweeping, planting, moving things around. There was a trip to the tip, an afternoon spent washing two cars during which the vacuum mysteriously stopped working (it's since started - a protest, perhaps?) and a huge washing mountain. 

But then there was also a lingering lunch outside in the warm sun, time spent sat in the garden on the bench with a cup of tea and a magazine.

I have two of these magnificent shrubs, above, in the garden. They are absolutely weighed down by tiny, frothy white blossoms at the moment, they look like they are covered in snow. Does anyone happen to know what they are called?

On Mother's day Bella and Angus made me breakfast in bed. I don't particularly like breakfast in bed, but I kept that thought to myself and pretended I hadn't smelled the burning downstairs or heard them come clattering up the stairs with a tray, shushing each other. There were sweet cards and gifts, a bunch of tulips and a lovely dinner at my parents. You see? Pockets of loveliness.

And now we are here in the Easter holidays. It's just been the children and I these last few days while John works, and we've fallen into a routine of mornings at home, afternoons out with the dog. There's been a fair amount of spring cleaning here. During term time I only manage to keep on top of housework in the most superficial way, so I rely on the school holidays to have a bit of a sort out and do things properly. I've cleaned not just the oven but the whole kitchen too, emptied out cupboards, washed and packed away winter things, taken bags to the charity shop, cleaned windows and under furniture not just around it. The weather has been nice so I've also done a huge amount of washing and ironing too. While completing these tasks does bring a sense of satisfaction, I'm a bit fed up with the housework now, and looking forward to getting out and about over the rest of the Easter holidays. 

But in amongst the scrubbing and sorting, you find little moments of happiness, like finding a copy of Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries III in near perfect condition in the charity shop for £2.50.

Like picking flowers from the garden and putting them in a vase on my bedside table. The droopy tulip was a result of Angus kicking his football right at my planter full of blooming, fragile flowers and beheading half of them.

Like taking Bella and Angus to the library and watching them choose books, and then pick out things they think the other will like too. We use our local library a lot, it has a well stocked children and teen section and the kids pester me to go every couple of weeks. 

Like making salted caramel cupcakes with Angus. Without any prompting or interference from me, he pulled a baking book off the shelf (Hummingbird Bakery: Home Sweet Home) and spent an hour going through it with a pack of post-it notes, highlighting things he wanted us to bake together over the holidays. Everything contains either chocolate or buttercream and involves every pan in the kitchen, and quite a lot of time, but bless him.

Like watching signs of spring emerge in the woods on our dog walks and seeing the first bluebells of the year.

Like crocheting my shawl, and delighting in the colour changes as it grows.

 And best of all, coming downstairs on Sunday afternoon to this sight in the garden.

You've got to look for these moments, haven't you? Enjoy the small stuff, be thankful for the moments of happiness, when they occur. I've been feeling very flat lately - a combination of tiredness, worry about so many things (Brexit mainly, and money) and an uncharacteristic lack of energy and enthusiasm - but I think you just have to keep on putting one foot in front of the other, looking for the positives, being thankful for what you have and looking upwards. 

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

March's Cookery Book

My chosen cookery book for March was Jamie's Italy, published in 2008, so most likely a freebie from when John worked in a bookshop many years ago.  It's an undervalued book that I've used a few times, but never really spent much time cooking from. It's clearly a lovingly researched book full of beautiful travel photography, and chapters are organised into Antipasti, Primi (soups, pasta, risotto), Salads, Secondi (fish, meat) and Desserts. I don't really understand the Italian way of having pasta then another second course after that - pasta is the one and only course in this house, unless someone wants to rummage for fruit or yogurt for dessert.

It was the pasta and risotto recipes which fitted most easily into the way I cook on a weeknight, both in terms of preparation time and cost of ingredients, and the first one I chose was a twist on a favourite here, spaghetti carbonara, but made with sausage meatballs rather than the usual pancetta.

You skin sausages, form them into little bite-sized balls, then fry while the pasta cooks. The sauce is your standard carbonara except for the addition of the zest of a lemon.

I was dubious, I'll be honest, but it was transformative, and easily the best carbonara I've ever eaten at home. John and I loved it. Bella and Angus however disliked the (tiny) addition of the lemon zest and said it was "too fruity". Kids, always wanting what is familiar...

Next was a chicken and mushroom pasta bake, but made with spaghetti, and I was intrigued how this would work. Also, as the only one in this house who likes mushrooms, I was deviously hoping I could sneak the fungi past everyone else and create a new family favourite. 

You fry the chicken and mushrooms before adding stock and cream and simmering while the spaghetti boils. The pasta and sauce are then baked with a topping of breadcrumbs and parmesan, very delicious. 

I loved it, but the other three members if this household were indifferent. Too mushroomy, apparently, but I did enjoy eating up the leftovers reheated for my lunch at work the following week.

Our next recipe, cauliflower risotto, was much more successful. 

You begin by making a pangrattato, a mixture of breadcrumbs, anchovies and chilli which is fried until crispy and sprinkled over the finished risotto at the end.

The rest of the risotto is fairly standard. The cauliflower stalk is finely chopped and added to the onion, celery and garlic at the start, while the florets simmer in the stock until soft before being gently crushed into the risotto.

The result was a heavenly cross between a plain risotto and cauliflower cheese. It had flavour and texture and was creamy and delicious. I didn't think the pangrattato was necessary really, it would be lovely on it's own, and I am definitely going to make this one again.

Next, a lunch recipe from the salad chapter: farro salad with roasted veg, although I used bulgar wheat. 

You roast some vegetables while the bulgar wheat is simmering, and then finely chop the cooked vegetables with lots of fresh herbs. I used basil and parsley from the supermarket with oregano and mint from the garden.

Then everything is mixed together and dressed with a little olive oil and lemon juice.

It's fantastic, you don't really need a recipe for a salad like this, and I will definitely make it again. I felt it could have done with a little more oomph though, perhaps a little feta sprinkled over the top, so I used the pangrattato leftover from the risotto to give it a bit more of a kick.

Finally, I tried something from the Desserts chapter. This was a bit of a struggle which surprised me; the desserts felt too summery for a cold, wet March, and I was trying to choose something which everyone would enjoy, not just me. 

I chose Nada's cake, a plain sponge cake scented with orange and lemon zest and scattered with blueberries.

I love blueberries but find them a flavour lottery, being either very sweet or sharp. These were sharper and I felt the cake batter could have done with a little more sugar. Anyway it was ok - nice but not amazing. It makes a large tray bake though, so I froze half of the cooked cake as I thought it might be nice defrosted, warmed and served with a little creme fraiche.

So, overall I'd call this a success - three nice meals and two really good ones which will definitely make it into our repertoire of family dinners.