Monday, 18 November 2019

Half a dress and other stories

I was going to sew a dress at the weekend. I'd been thinking about it all week, thinking that the Saturday and Sunday just gone was going to be the last quiet weekend before Christmas and that it would be my only chance. I have to psyche myself up to using my sewing machine, mentally warm up the idea - see it as something exciting and full of possibility, not terrifying. I also need to be able to give over the kitchen table to sewing, not an easy task when it's the most used surface in the house. 

I made sure the house was clean on Friday night so that I didn't have to spend Saturday cleaning. On Saturday morning I found myself blissfully - and unusually - alone in the house, and in daylight hours too. This is when I could do some sewing, I thought, and brought the sewing machine down from the loft. But then I made a coffee and read a bit of Nigel Slater's The Christmas Chronicles, drank the coffee hot and in peace. Then I started tackling the admin pile that builds up on the kitchen worktop next to the sink, under the shelves. 

Everything that needs to be looked at or dealt with gets dumped here, and I sorted and filed, filled out and hung up a new calendar, put some new book ends to good use, and stuck newly printed photos on the wall.

A small task, but one that I had been meaning to do for weeks, and I felt so much better when it was done.

Next, I indulged in some first class pottering. I swapped over the blanket on our bed for a warmer one, tidied up a bit, put things away that had built up during the week.

There is always a mountain of washing to do at the weekend, and I went to and from the washing machine all morning. In between that I dug out the sheepskin rug and woollen cushions and brought them down to the living room.

I recently bought a few sprigs (stalks?) of pampas grass and had a lot of fun faffing around with them, putting them in different pots and vases. I love their warm colour and how they add so much texture to a room.

While I was at it I dusted and faffed around with the mantel.

Then I went to pick up Bella and Angus (and also look at my sister's new house - very exciting!) before eating bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese for lunch. Later, I took the kids and dog for a walk.

After a gloriously sunny morning, it had clouded over, but it was still lovely to be out in the fresh air in one of our favourite places.

By the time we got back it was too dark to start sewing, so I poured a sherry and lit the fire.

First thing Sunday morning I put a chicken stew in the slow cooker and then felt good about it all day. I baked a batch of sticky ginger cake and did the ironing while listening to The Archers. At some point I made a coffee and sat down with a book. It was possibly the highlight of my whole weekend. I did a few rows on this baby blanket that I'm making for a friend.

That afternoon I met my other sister for a walk in the woods with her children and dog, and then they came back here for a cup of tea, and before I knew it, it was getting dark again. There was just time to pin and cut out the pieces before I had to pack it all away as we needed the table to eat.

But that's OK. My weekend wasn't quite as empty and quiet as I'd pictured it, but I made a start on the dress and did a lot more besides. I don't have to binge-sew the dress over a weekend, I am allowed to do it here and there, and I may not get time to do any more sewing until the Christmas holidays, and that's OK too. I am bursting with crafty things that I want to do at the moment, namely finish the baby blanket, make a Christmas jumper, make a wreath and do a little festive embroidery. And maybe make a dress. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

October's Cookery Book

This is the comfort food edition, in which I show you lots of photos of baked carbs taken in electric light and try to persuade you how delicious it all was, and it really was. 

My book this month is Gordon Ramsay's Ultimate Cookery Course. You'd be right in thinking it's not my usual taste, but it's a book John really rates and cooks from a lot. He got the book heavily discounted somewhere, possibly when he still worked in a bookshop years ago, and he likes it a lot and persuaded me to have another look at it. Favourite recipes include Easy Bollito Misto, which is a wonderful sausage and lentil dish, Pork and Prawn Meatballs in Aromatic Broth (amazing when you have a cold) and Sichuan Dan Dan Noodles, a spicy stir fry made with minced pork which we cooked so often that it became a weeknight staple, to the point where I was almost bored with it. The book itself is quite a comprehensive overview of cooking, with chapters dedicated to "Basic Skills" and "Classics with a Twist" but the chapters we go to again and again are "Spices", "Good Food for Less" and "Cooking in Advance".

We decided to try some new dishes in October, and started with Tomato Risotto. You begin the basic risotto, cooking the rice in stock, and while that's cooking saute lots of halved cherry tomatoes in some butter until they are collapsing juicily.

You tip the tomatoes into the cooked rice, and add marscapone and grated parmesan before giving it all a good stir.

I've never added marscapone to a risotto before, and it was heavenly. Don't be fooled by the insipid colour of this dish - the tomato flavour was through the roof.

Next we tried Farfalle with Ricotta, Pancetta and Peas. I've got to be honest here - I chose this because I knew it would be an easy weeknight dinner that everyone would eat, and it was. 

It couldn't be easier: cook the pasta, fry the pancetta, then tip the drained, cooked pasta and peas into the pancetta pan, adding the ricotta and some creme fraiche. Stir it all through and that's it. The best kind of cheap and easy dinner.

Finally, more pasta in the form of Macaroni and Cauliflower Bake with Three Cheeses. Now, I have to admit, I make my own version of this a lot, adding broccoli too, and baking it in the oven with breadcrumbs and cheese on top. Everyone likes it, it's easy and cheap and filling. But I was keen to see if the addition of three cheeses really made any difference.

I always use extra mature cheddar, with the reasoning that you don't need as much mature cheddar as mild to get the flavour, and if I'm going to have a meal made with cheese then I want to be able to taste it. This recipe uses cheddar, Lancashire and Cheshire in equal amounts. It was very nice, but I couldn't in all honesty taste the other cheeses in the sauce, but I did enjoy eating them in sandwiches with chutney.

Finally Blondies, which we have made so often that the book falls open at that splattered page. I just wanted a reason to make a batch, really. They are so easy and tasty, I often make them if baking is required for something at work as they do go down very well. They are just brownies really, but made with white chocolate and cranberries and I prefer them, not being a fan of a very chocolatey brownie myself.

If you search "Gordon Ramsay Blondies" lots of links to the recipe come up. They are really, really good.

I want to say that November's book will be more interesting, more colourful and contain more vegetables, but if it carries on raining like this, and if life continues to be this relentlessly busy, then I'll continue to cook cheesy pasta dishes which I can do in my sleep and everyone will eat. And I'll be happy. I'll just make sure we eat a lot of oranges too.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Pumpkin Time

I cannot believe it has been a week since I last posted. The last few days of half term just flew by in a blur of washing, housework, rain and colds. That makes it sound awful, and it wasn't really, but it was a reminder that, while it's lovely to get away in the school holidays, how much I really do need some unhurried days at home to restore my equilibrium. 

We left for Durham with a full washing basket (when is it anything other?) and came back with another, and then the beds all needed stripping, and Ziggy was sick over a blanket in the car on the way home (he did amazingly with the journey but the back roads home from Winchester may have been too much) and I felt like the washing machine started and never stopped. And of course it rained pretty much constantly so drying the washing was challenging. Ah, the tyranny of laundry. We also all had various colds and viruses over half term, you know how it is.

I don't know if it was the season or the rain, but I did a lot of cooking and baking last week. I think it's part of my nesting behaviour, how I choose to relax and feel cosy when the weather is horrible and I only want to be indoors. We don't celebrate Halloween but I do like a pumpkin, and I did a lot of pumpkin related cooking.

The pretty squashes were chopped into eighths and roasted, skin on, before being turned into soup. Once they were cool enough, I peeled away the toughest bits of skin by hand and threw the flesh into a pan with a can of coconut milk, some spices, and some vegetable stock. Once it had all come to the boil I pureed it, and it was delicious.

Leftover seeds were washed, dried and sprinkled with olive oil, salt and pepper before being roasted until crisp.

I made pumpkin pancakes (this recipe is very similar). I love these so much - the pumpkin flesh and spices add such a warmth and sweetness to a regular pancake, I look forward to making them every year.

And another seasonal favourite - pumpkin and carrot bars with a cream cheese swirl frosting. Really lovely and moist.

Plus flapjacks and blondies for lunchboxes and afterschool snacks.

Making the most of a leisurely half term breakfast, I made baked oatmeal with caramelised pears and have been eating leftovers warmed up every day this week. Baked oats are a revelation. Half way between porridge and flapjack, they have a texture that I really love. 

On Sunday, the one day it didn't rain, I gardened. I weeded, cut back, swept up and planted bulbs and if felt good. There is still so much to do, and the grass needs cutting again, but it felt really positive to get out there and do something. 

Did I mention the grass really needs cutting?

We also managed a bracing, sunny walk on the beach that afternoon.

A morning in the garden, then an afternoon on the beach, just what I needed after all that cooking. 

The last few days back at work and school have been hectic. There's a busy calendar with lots going on after school each night and plenty of other things simmering away in the background too, like visits to the vets and new windows being put in and conversations about new bathrooms. I'm frantically crocheting a baby blanket for a colleague who is expecting her first baby soon, reading Agatha Christie, watching the new series of Escape to the Chateau, and I have made a start on some Christmas shopping. Bonfire Night passed us by this year. The fireworks display we usually attend was cancelled, and what with the horrible wet, windy weather and busy evenings, we just didn't manage to organise anything. I felt really guilty about it last night, but the kids don't seem overly bothered and there's always next year. I can't do everything.