Thursday, 28 February 2019

February's Cookery Book

This month, like last, saw me reaching for a cookery book that I do actually use a lot, but only for the same two recipes and that's a bit of a waste, to put it mildly. My book for February is Nigella Express, one I've had since is was published in 2007.

I always like Nigella's books because they are so well tested, and you know that the timings and quantities are going to work, even if some of the ingredients are a bit random or expensive. This is a book packed full of recipes and ideas - and there are some really good recipes in here - but the promotion of ready chopped, plastic-packaged vegetables, the idea of speed and convenience above all else, well these felt a little out of tune with the way we, or at least I, shop now. But that's about the worst thing I can say about this book - other than that, it's a lot of fun. Chapters are themed in an entertaining way (retro, party, Italian, Mexican, Christmas) with some particularly good suggestions for breakfasts and packed lunches. Every recipe has a photo (yay!) and the layout and type are clear and easy to read. Plus is has that wonderful thing, a fabric bookmark attached to the book.

We cooked from this book over half term and I decided to hand the book over to Bella and Angus and asked them to choose some things they would like to make. This could go one of two ways (pudding for dinner every night?) and I was intrigued to see what they would pick.

Bella's first choice was Naan Pizza. I make homemade pizza a lot, but always with a pizza dough base and I've never tried naan or tortilla with a topping like this. It was so quick and easy, the work of moments: tomato sauce and cheese for the kids, extra olives and anchovies for John and I. It was a good Saturday lunchtime option, and would work as a teatime meal for the kids with some extra vegetable and maybe homemade chips. The kids preferred normal pizza but gave it 7.5/10.

Bella surprised me next by choosing Chicken Schnitzel with Bacon and White Wine, or simply chicken breasts butterflied and pan fried quickly with bacon before de-glazing with a little white wine to create a sauce. It was a lot nicer than this photo suggests, and we ate it with buttery mashed potatoes and green beans. I thought the leftovers would be nice in a salad or sandwich but there weren't any. 8/10.

Her next choice was Macaroni Cheese, one of Bella's favourite and most requested meals. I usually make a cheese sauce with milk, flour and butter but this involved cooking the pasta, then putting it into an oven dish with two eggs, a tin of evaporated milk and a lot of grated cheddar cheese.  

It looked revolting when I put it in the oven, with the macaroni swimming around in all that liquid, and I was worried it was going to be awful.

It was different to my usual macaroni cheese but just as good, with the bonus of less washing up. The children, however, always wanting what is familiar, gave it a mere 7/10, a bit harsh I thought because it was tasty.

Bella's last choice was Chocolate Peanut Butter Fudge Sundae. Three types of ice cream (vanilla, chocolate and caramel) topped with a sauce made from chocolate, cream, syrup and peanut butter melted together. Obviously it was amazing and unsurprisingly scored a kid rating of 10/10, but I think they were just excited that there were three different kinds of ice cream in the freezer, not the vanilla I usually buy.

Angus didn't choose any meals. The most sensible option he could come up with was Breakfast Bars: nuts, seeds, oats and dried fruit coated in a tin of condensed milk then baked. A bit like a flapjack, but with just one liquid ingredient rather than the butter, sugar and syrup I would usually melt together. 

No-one wanted them for breakfast, but they were ideal for mid-morning or afternoon snacks. I forget how much the children want to endlessly eat when it's half term. Angus says 9/10.

He also chose Doughnut French Toast, so-called because the sweet eggy bread is dredged in caster sugar before eating. I have made this before but happened to have a stale loaf of sliced white bread, so I agreed to make it again.

He was disappointed that I wouldn't allow maple syrup on top (!) but still gave it 8/10 saying that pancakes and waffles are better. I liked it but felt it needed something alongside it - not a syrup, but perhaps just some sharp fruit compote to cut through all that sweet stodginess. 

Angus's third choice was Nutella Pancakes, simply a packet of ready-made crepes, spread with hazelnut chocolate spread, folded, and coated with melted butter before being baked. 

On reflection two pancakes each was a bit much but there were four clean bowls afterwards so that says quite a lot about what a successful dessert this was. Full marks for this one. 

Finally I got to choose a couple of meals, and my first was Sesame Peanut Noodles, a cold lunchtime salad. I work in a nut free school so can't take this to work, but really enjoyed having this for lunch throughout the week at home. The combination of sticky sauce and crunchy vegetables was perfect, and the noodles gave just enough substance to the meal to stop me feeling hungry two hours later. 

Finally, Sausages with Halloumi and Peppers. This was one of those assembly jobs or a meal: spicy sausages baked with a jar of roasted peppers and sliced halloumi.

I served it with potato wedges and some greens and it was completely delicious. At least I thought so - it reminded me how much I love halloumi and why don't I buy it more? Well, the kids found the sausages too spicy, the peppers too salty and the halloumi too squeaky and were generally underwhelmed. Don't worry, I finished up what they left. It was fantastic. 

So, I'm not sure how many new family meals we discovered in this book, but we did have a lot of fun cooking together and eating much more exciting desserts than we normally would. I'm not sure I'll be handing over the reigns to Bella and Angus for a few months yet - my waistline needs to recover from all that chocolate. 

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Going Slowly

I like February, always have done. It's a short month, there's the half term holiday, it contains my birthday and it always feels like beginning of the end of winter. Not quite spring, but you feel the odd day or moment when there's a little more warmth in the sun, when bulbs start to appear, when you spot early blossom on trees, and suddenly spring doesn't seem an impossibility. I love winter, but I am bored now of my daily rotation of jeans, jumper, boots and ready for a wardrobe refresh. 

I think the February half term is my favourite. It always feels like we go at a slower pace than during the other school breaks; maybe it's because I'm not as exhausted as I usually am during the busy autumn term, maybe the weather keeps us indoors more than the during the May holiday, but I like it. It's mostly been the three of us, four including the dog, and we've had such a nice time just pottering around, enjoying each other's company. With Bella especially, I feel like we get a bit of the old Bella back during the school holidays - anyone else know what I mean? We've set new, much stricter limits on screen time, something I've always been quite relaxed about and, after the initial sulks, it's made a massive difference to their attitude, behaviour and creativity, all positive as you would imagine. 

We walked around one of our favourite places, fed the ducks, said hello to the horses. It made me a bit nostalgic for those days when they were both really small.

We have cooked, a lot. I let them choose what they wanted to make and gave them (almost) free reign.

I'm not ready to start proper gardening just yet but I've been popping out there more and more, wandering about, seeing what's growing, poking at this and that, excited for the gardening days that are to come. Excited for this wooden planter full of tulips when they finally open. 

The children and I have emptied out boxes of toys and made piles to donate or pack away, and  I've tackled the office and play room, sorting, filing, cleaning, but there's also been time this week to crochet and sew. I am really enjoying making this chunky throw and am whizzing through those rows, loving the texture that is emerging. 

I've had the nicest time this week making some tiny clothes for this rabbit.  

"Rabbie", as he's known, belongs to my niece Eleanor and is, as you can see, much loved. I have been given the huge privilege of being allowed to look after Rabbie for a week (he has been kept on a high shelf far away from the jaws of a curious whippet) so that I could make him some clothes for Eleanor's birthday present.

I started with blue trousers and a cosy, woollen jumper....

 ...then added a smart scarf and little satchel with teeny tiny buttons.

He also has a white t-shirt and a rather fetching jacket, should he get chilly. 

I had so much fun rummaging through my yarn and felt scraps to make these things, and have bought a little brown cardboard suitcase so that Rabbie has somewhere to keep his new clothes.

I celebrated my birthday this week, and it was extra lovely as John was able to take a couple of days off work. My birthday treat was breakfast out and a wander around Chichester, and a visit to the fabulous Winter's Moon, the shop and studio belonging to my friend Julia.

My phone photos do not do the place justice, but it's full of the most beautifully chosen mid-century home wares, some vintage, some new. John bought me this lamp as my birthday present and I could not love it more. It's an investment, handmade in the UK by a small company, and I will love it forever. I am thinking much more carefully about what I buy and where I buy it from now, trying to buy less but buy better, choosing small, independent businesses if I can. This is not always achievable, of course, and I have to be realistic, but I am trying.

John made me a carrot birthday cake with cream cheese frosting, my favourite, and it was a rush to finish it before my family came round to say hello. It was still warm when we cut into it, and absolutely delicious. 

I was spoiled with some really lovely, thoughtfully chosen gifts which made me smile. I had been thinking about choosing a pair of Lucy & Yak dungarees for some time, and when I saw they had introduced a Tall range (I'm 5'11") I was over the moon. They are so soft and comfortable, and so versatile - I could wear them with a roll neck jumper or shirt underneath, or one of my many striped tops. 

So, all in all a really nice week. I even managed to get my hair cut and coloured, long overdue and such a treat. Yesterday I cleaned the house and did the food shopping, trying to keep this weekend as free and relaxed as possible. I am not sure what to do today but the sun is shining and I think I will just have a coffee while I decide. 

Sunday, 17 February 2019

February Happies

 Making me happy this month....

:: Days where there is the scent of spring in the air and it's still light when I walk the dog after work.

 :: Mandarins which are still wearing their waxy, dark green leaves.

:: Hyacinth bulbs, bought in the supermarket and repotted into favourite bowls.

:: Bella learning how to make Rocky Road bars.

:: Snowdrops.

:: This dog, always greeting me with more joy and delight than any human in this house, his tail banging against everything as it wags furiously, circling my legs. We're still working on Not Jumping Up.

:: Hot pink stalks of early forced rhubarb.

:: Rhubarb and custard cake, cooling on the kitchen windowsill. 

:: The biggest, squishiest ball of yarn, made up of six strands of DK wound together and destined to become a throw. The colours remind me of liquorice allsorts. 

:: And today, a lovely day out at Petworth House with friends and the fact that tomorrow is half term so no Sunday night feeling!

Thank you very much for your comments on my jumper. I have worn it three times already this week, a sure sign that it's going to become a favourite. Now that I've finished such a long term project I feel like I can start thinking about my next one, and have ordered wool for one, bought fabric for two more, and am in the middle of making a set of tiny clothes for my niece's favourite rabbit. I'm having so much fun with it, I will show you the results soon. Wishing you all a happy week ahead.