Holiday courgette

August 11, 2010

Well, despite the hard times, we have managed a little holiday – a week at my mum’s in Norfolk, half with her there, half with her gone. Perfect.

Growing up in Norfolk felt dull – big skies and beaches, hours from anywhere don’t appeal much when you’re 15-18 and itching for some entertainment – though in Walthamstow last Tuesday lunchtime the unemployed 19 year olds were hanging out in a kids’ play park, so maybe it’s all the same when you don’t have much money and nothing to do.

Anyhoo, what felt dull as a teenager is just lovely as an adult, and even better as a parent. Norfolk is beautiful. The weather wasn’t brilliant, but Babs didn’t care, she was just happy being on the beach, playing with sand and throwing stones and looking in rock pools.

The days we got rained off the beach or sandblasted into retreat, we spent in Sandringham woods, complete with a troll which both scared and intrigued little Babs, whose favourite book for the past couple of months has been the Billy Goats Gruff (three Ladybird versions – 1970s ‘well-loved tales’, 1980s redesign, 1980s ‘read it yourself’). We had to go back to the woods three days on the trot, and she gradually built up to touching it (after much demonstration by daddy that the troll was not real), and on the walks we tried to take preceding or following our visits to the troll’s hideout, she didn’t talk about much else. On day 3, as we stepped out of the car, she told me, ‘I’m not scared; I’m a brave girl. The troll’s not real; he’s made of wood.’ I think she was really trying to reassure herself.

We also made it to see Louisa and two of her three tiddlers; in their amazing garden they had a glut of yellow courgettes, so we came home with an armful and made pasta with courgette, garlic and chili (based on the penne gardiniera we both order every time we go to Carluccio’s), and ordered the book she recommended (Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache)  in order to make chocolate courgette cake (book arrived, cake outstanding),

Other highlights of a fortnight off, between Norfolk, London and Dorset:

  • Crisp sandwiches in the car
  • Painful, spiky sand whipped up off the beach in the wind, meaning we had to think again for what to do… ending up at Bircham windmill
  • Making a run for it off Heacham beach when the rain decided it wasn’t going away
  • Fish and chips from Fishers in Hunstanton, sadly in polystyrene not paper, but enhanced with salt from a salt mill and a jar of tartare sauce and cotton napkins, packed by my mum
  • Babs playing in rockpools
  • Swimming in Fulwell Cross Leisure Centre – an old 60s pool, with old wooden 60s flip seats in the spectating area, which poor Babs got sandwiched down, and squealed no more than might be expected
  • Shopping in Veena’s in Barkingside – mango to make mango lassi, chai puri, masala fish spices, and falafel mix. I almost bought idli and vada, and we talked about going to Idli Vada in Gants Hill (which I can’t find online!), but we have a vada mix at home, so I’ll do it soon. Idli mix and vada mix and uttapam mix and dosa mix… oh my. The temptation.
  • Buying withdrawn books for 50p from Barkingside library – Helen Cooper’s Tatty Ratty is our new favourite, and could help us out of a hole, should Horsey ever go walkabout
  • Hanging out with D and Gussie-Goose, idolised by Babs, in their amazing mid-century bungalow surrounded by fields. For days after we came home, she asked me every day: ‘Where’s K?’, ‘Where’s I?’, ‘Where’s D?’, ‘Where’s Gussie-Goose?’ and told me every night ‘ I love mummy and I love daddy and I love Rachel and I love K, and I love I, and I love D and I love Gussie-Goose’. Smitten.

Oh, and I’ve finally found a good picnic blanket, after two summers of looking. Only problem is, we have no money; so it’s on my Christmas list. And lots of things for other people’s Christmas, here; and more picnicky brilliance here.


August 10, 2010

We must have a little micro-climate round here, because our local brambles are ready before the brambles in the country. I don’t much like summer fruits, not even strawberries, and blackberries don’t usually get me excited. But on Friday, out with Babs on her new scooter in the park, we took a little detour to extend our walk and came across loads of brambles, quite loaded with fruit. There were some other people picking, and they offered us a bag when they heard us cooing over all the fruit, so we had fun collecting berries and trying to keep Babs from loading the bag with berries at doggie height.

Babs is such a parrot, and such a good girl; she kept checking with me: ‘How about this one?’, ‘Ooh, that’s a good one,’ and ‘That’s a big one?’. She insisted on carrying the bag (a little ziplock bag, no carry handles) home, and concentrated so hard on cradling it gently she squashed a lot of them in her arms, and she was rigid with excitement once we got home to see what we might do with them.

Sadly for her, as it was almost teatime, she didn’t get to see what I did with them – not til the next night, anyway, when she put far more away than I expected. Once I’d done the bath and Terry took her to read stories in the bedroom, I came downstairs to make crumble. Bur not just any old crumble, the Good Housekeeping Apple and Blackberry Crumble. Yummy.

Two things that made this superb – the crumble mixture is made with ground almonds* (I smashed up some flakes – better) and muscovado sugar; and the apples are pre-cooked in a frying pan with butter (I used salted – better). Yum. OK, three – I also added some porridge oats (whizzed down a bit, because that’s how we keep them in the cupboard for toddler/speedy porridge) and the oats/nuts combo added some valuable texture to the treacly yumminess.

Terry made some custard (the real kind, by Bird’s), and we had crumble and custard for pudding. Babs had it cold for pudding the next day, and wolfed, and kept wolfing. We had the rest of the 3lb pie dish that night, cold, and it might almost have been better.

And it was quite so yummy that I made another one for tea tonight.



Oh yeah, that’s done.

* And I hate anything with ground almonds/almond essence – can’t bear frangipani, marzipan or bakewell tart, won’t go near amaretto, the foul substance.

chocolate chestnut cake

July 31, 2010

Oh my. Oh my, oh my. It tastes good before it gets into the oven.

I’ve had in the cupboard a tin of chestnut puree, for a long, long time. Possibly since before we moved here, in November 2007. Its date was up in 2008, but I never chucked it, ever hopeful I’d find a home for it in a chocolate cake one day. I bought it as a bargain, for some reason reduced to 68p from a couple of quid, I recall. I’m programmed not to resist a bargain, just like my father, and so I walked home from the corner shop just now, £3.78 lighter for not having found a recipe using cocoa rather than 70% dark chocolate, and not having the energy to go all the way to the supermarket, not immune to the irony and with a niggling fear that I’d just blown four quid on what could be an off tin of chestnut. I love the corner shop, though. The man’s penny tin is for his local Hindu temple, and he’s given Babs free toys – a much-loved mobile phone and a periscope. He’s welcome to my £3.78.

Anyway, much Googling yielded several chocolate chestnut recipes, some with bonkers quantities, and some with obscure ingredients (dried cherries, anyone?) I’d not find in the supermarket, let alone my storecupboard. I checked Nigella, and Hummingbird, and Good Housekeeping and the Green & Black’s cookbooks, but nothing was quite as straightforward as Hugh Twiddly-Whatnot’s Chestnut and Chocolate Truffle Cake.

I had a sudden panic (“£7 wasted!”) as I realised I’d added 250ml milk to already pureed chestnuts, rather than the chestnuts Hugh had specified, so I ditched some of the milk and threw in the excess chestnut puree and am still waiting for it to lose some of its looseness as it sits in the oven at 50 minutes and counting rather than the specified 25-30. (It’s in a slightly smaller tin, and therefore deeper, so I’m crossing my fingers and shaking the oven from time to time). It looks like it might be ok, and a tiny ramekin one I made from the excess I dared not pour into the tin, didn’t remain intact for Babs as I’d hoped, but confirms it’d be ok as half the quantity in 8 or so ramekins for an impressive pudding for friends.

Pictures will have to come later, as Terry’s taken the camera out with Babs to his friend’s birthday party this afternoon. Shame – the tiddler was a cracked little photogenic gem. Hopefully I can resist the big one before he gets home. I’ll pour myself a glass of wine to detract from the temptation.

Here you go. The little one didn’t survive. I wonder how long this one will.

Potty training, or: where to sell my old cloth nappies

July 17, 2010

Re-selling cloth nappies hasn’t been easy since eBay clamped down on the used nappy sellers a few years ago. Though I was able to buy used nappies there easily enough when I was trying out brands and stocking up when Babs was tiny, re-selling them a few months later was impossible – my ad taken down and a slap on the wrist. Some sellers get round it by obfuscation, but being pathologically honest and a bit of a scaredy cat, I hung back and tried our local SwapShop arm of Freecycle, and then packaged the majority up in the loft.

But now Babs is in training pants sometimes, and knickers sometimes, and for most success, no pants (perfecting her peeing on the lawn); and particularly because we’re cluttered, and skint, the problem of how to shift the good nappies returns.

I had another go with our local SwapShop with my used TotsBots Bamboozles – recommended, oh yes, but floggable because I’d already been seduced by TotsBots’ newer FlexiTots, and wanted those for any future nipper. These have since been superseded by Bamboozle S-T-R-E-T-C-H, which look just brilliant – three-way stretch in soft and absorbent bamboo – and the EasyFit all-in-ones they’re currently talking up on Facebook. Anyway, despite their good reputation, but perhaps because of the new product diversity (and hopefully not due to local nappy apathy – though I wouldn’t be surprised), the Bamboozles didn’t shift on SwapShop or on Gumtree. I had a day-pack of unused cotton TotsBots too, but these didn’t shift either, presumably for the same reason(s).

So I looked some more and re-found, which I’d toyed with when I was looking to buy, but having to register with another site (and pay a commission) was off-putting, and the site is old-fashioned and I’m distrusting.

And then I found, which seems to be a kind of advice site, forum and platform for mini-‘WAHM’ (work at home mums) stores. Oh, and a classifieds for used nappies. Anyway, I haven’t explored very far, but I found that as well as a ‘for sale’ section (~140 ads), there was a ‘wanted’ section (6 ads), so I looked there. Bingo, someone wanted Bamboozles, and after a couple of emails, she paid me with PayPal (ouch, that stung) and I posted her nappies. Easy.

I reposted the cotton nappies on Gumtree a couple of times and then forgot about them, figuring there are enough nippers about to be born around me that I could gift them to someone, but then out of the blue I got a message from someone local saying she wanted them and could come the next day. So also pretty easy.

So I’m £48 richer, which is better off than I would have been if eBay had allowed me to sell there. Since the nappies cost me £51 in total (eBay bamboo and bargain cotton), and the bamboo did us about a year’s good use, I reckon that’s a bit of a bargain.

And it paid for the Tots Pants and a potty.

Hard Times

July 17, 2010

We’re skint. Broke. Recessed.  We’ve been got. It’s spaghetti all’olio alio for us from now on. Hard times. If only I knew the Italian.

Terry’s had a brilliant run of non-stop jobs over the whole of the 6½ years I’ve known him, but in this economic climate, lots of folk in his industry are no doubt expendable. So we’re broke.

Today I cancelled the veg box and most of the milk man. We’re reducing our mortgage repayments, and Babs is down to two days a week at nursery. Hard times indeed.

That was a month ago. In hard times, it’s hard to blog. (Oh, ok then: I didn’t have the time/energy/inspiration to finish it, and was possibly a little nervous about publishing about Terry).

This month, still recessed, we’ve decided to stick with the mortgage overpayments actually, since Guardian Money reminded me it makes sense to pay down the expensive debt at the expense of our not-doing-much savings; I’ve reduced Babs’ savings; we’ve not booked the holiday we’d been planning (more of which later); I’ve sold more nappies; and I must steel my resolve to really cycle to work, and continue with the pretty uninterrupted making and taking of my own lunch (and often breakfast too) to work. We’ve also changed our gas and electricity suppliers and I’ve chucked my savings from doing-nothing accounts to doing-a-little-bit-more accounts. So it’s petit middle class hard times; we’re not properly skint quite yet. We’ll save that for when my employer decides to seek its 20%  cuts in my direction. But it’s also about cutting back responsibly; it was hard to reduce milkman’s work, knowing that we’d be one among many taking it out on him. And I know we could shop elsewhere than Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, but I’d rather have less, or just eat more cheaply, than shop at Tesco or Asda, our local alternatives, where more veg is flown-in and farmers are squeezed harder.

Thought for the Day yesterday (Friday 16 July) was timely, and lovely – Rhidian Brook discussing his hard times and whether to cancel his critical illness insurance or his charity contributions: his dilemma, then: “I can cushion myself against a future that might see me unable to support my family due to illness, or I can give to people who are already unable to support their families due to illness; do I pay a dividend to fear, or do I give, in hope?”

So we’re cutting back as far as we can with as little collateral damage as possible, and that’ll mean less booze in the house, no new stuff for a while, and a bit more pasta.

Goodbye, Gordon

May 11, 2010

Well, after half a week of humming and hawing, it appears we have a new PM. Sadly, he’s a Tory, and he’s related to the Queen. Sounds like just the kind of guy who can really deliver on ‘the common good’ and ‘the national interest’.

Of course, it also means Gordon Brown stepped down earlier this evening, with a really quite moving resignation speech. Goodbye, Gordon. I hope that the charity work he plans for his retirement from politics allows him the dignity in the next few years his foul detractors have denied him in the last three.

Since this is ostensibly a housewifery blog, it’s probably right and proper to thank Gordon (well, and some of the others – but as Chancellor his role was crucial) for tax credits for working families, Sure Start and the children’s centres in every ward in England, free nursery places for under 5s, the minimum wage, a massive increase in the length of paid maternity leave, paternity leave, reduced NHS waiting times … Laura Barton sums up the benefits afforded to women under the 13 years of Labour government probably more accurately and more eloquently than I.

Let’s see what the Tories have in store.

Why I’m boycotting Primark

April 26, 2010

Well, I’ve never shopped there – their prices are so low they can’t be making profits without exploiting someone in the supply chain – and I bet they’re not in the West/minority world. Sure, they sell such volume that their margins don’t need to be very great to turn a profit, but their expansion in the last few years makes me smell a backroom of exploitation somewhere in the majority world.

There was a furore a few weeks ago culminating in Primark pulling a line of padded bikini tops that went down in sizes as low as an Age 7, due to a consumer backlash that captured the media’s attention. But unsurprisingly, the inappropriate kids’ clothing lines don’t end their – while, of course, the retractions do.

So it turned out that a friend on Facebook today managed to buy a holiday wardrobe for both mum and toddler for only £43… I bit my tongue about the exploitation, but it was the next bit that got me: she passed over, but couldn’t not pass comment on a kids’ t-shirt saying “Future WAG”. As she rather succinctly put it, ‘how much would you have to hate your daughter to buy her that?’ I’d put it another way: how much do Primark hate women to sexualise our daughters and stunt their aspirations like this?

I was planning to make a joke about writing to the Daily Mail to express my moral outrage; I refrained lest anyone took me even slightly seriously. The misogynist Mail mustn’t be mistaken for a friend of women.

Instead, I apparently align myself with David Cameron, “who demanded social responsibility “instead of businesses and media companies encouraging the premature sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood” during his party’s manifesto launch”, according to The Independent.

I might email him and ask him to join me in my boycott.

Squished squash

April 13, 2010

Oh, squash: so easy to grow, so pleasing for gardeners, so weirdly beautiful and so magical at Hallowe’en… yet so boring, after six months in the veg box.

I have a freezer full of squash: quartered, roasted, bagged and frozen. I say ‘I’, as I suspect Terry has forgotten they are there.

I liked squash. Last year, with the help of River Cafe Green (Ebury Press, 2001), Terry (and I)  made several subtly different pumpkin risottos, to mine and Babs’ delight. This year, however, we’ve struggled. Years ago, KT and I attempted a butternut squash coconut curry from a Nigel Slater recipe out of the Observer, which took over two hours when it should have taken half an hour, yet still the squash was unyielding. In these new days of squash mountain, all memories cinnamony, soft, subtly sweet risotto are gone, and all I can think of is the hard(-won) butternut curry.

A couple of weeks ago, then, when the Riverford box arrived, we noted the still-green squash, put it by the fruit bowl without comment, and settled down to ignoring it for a week. However, not wishing to be ignored, our squash soon began to ooze, and during a moment of uncharacteristic kitchen cleanliness, Terry picked it up to wipe underneath it and found a very squishy bottom. That wasn’t water on the counter, that be squash ooze.

Never one to pass up the opportunity to voice my consumer concerns, I emailed our local Riverford rep, who co-ordinates deliveries in our area, thinking I might get two quid off my next box if I niggled enough. She quickly responded, very apologetic, and assured me we’d be compensated with our next box.

And what compensation! A free bag of comice pears – the delightful pears that remain rock hard for a week and then all ripen and go off within 24 hours (T played around with the idea of pear tarte tatin for a couple of days, but by the time we’d finished arguing about the best way to do it (where ‘finished’ = ‘given up’, not ‘come to an agreement’), poor pears had given up and gone soft) – and another squash!

My heart rather sank.

A week later, it was Easter, so I packed up the perishables from the fridge, and picked up the squash, and we headed to my mum’s. I knew I should have phoned ahead: Mum’s research for a week of pescetarian catering had led her to a (delicious) minestrone involving the unlikely combination of squash, leeks, courgettes and pesto; as the teacher of (almost*) everything I know about domestic efficiency, she had, of course, the butternut already installed in the fridge.

So what on earth to do with our pumpkin? Pumpkin pie, I don’t like. (It’s a texture thing. Just looks like orange egg custard tart to me. Yuck.) Pumpkin risotto? No, that’s what the freezer squash is for – and there’s going to be heaps of it. Pumpkin curry? No, yielding sweetness I don’t want in an south Asian curry, and I don’t want the faff of making east Asian something (sorry). Nigel’s pumpkin curry? Never again. Pumpkin cakes? There’s really no alternative.

So I checked the Google for pumpkin cakes, and found two contenders: here and here.  Dan Lepard’s pumpkin and ginger sounded delicious, but fiddly (I was on my holidays… I wanted to relax), so I went for the Marie Claire/Lola’s Kitchen. Should have gone for fiddly.

All I didn’t have was white chocolate curls, but I did everything else right, but these were not cupcakes, they were muffins. Terry had already used a pound and a half of cream cheese in a cheesecake the night before (Terry bakes – and it’s stiff competition), so we held back on the cream cheese frosting, but still, I fail to see these as cupcakes. We ate them with butter, for breakfast.

And meanwhile, 400g of pumpkin was about a quarter of our (really not that large) squash; so I used some more to make pumpkin cakes of my own creation. I figured the pumpkin is sweet, and moist, so what harm can it do to the usual, bog-standard fairy cake recipe? The worst is make it too sweet or too soggy; sweet we can deal with, and soggy – well, I’ll know to use less next time. As it turned out, they were a little too sweet, despite my reducing the sugar in a 4oz recipe to 3oz, so next time I’ll use 20z on the basis that they’re bound to end up frosted.

So, for a dozen or so pumpkin fairy cakes:

4oz (120g) butter
4oz (120g) self-raising flour
2oz (60g) caster sugar
200g grated pumpkin (I did it in the magimix, just with the regular attachment, not the grater)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon cinnamon/allspice (I used Penzey’s Apple Pie Spice: cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and cloves)
1 teaspoon vanilla essence

I basically chucked everything bar the pumpkin in together in the ‘all-in-one’ fashion, and then folded in the pumpkin, about a third at a time – that seemed to work, and gave me an opportunity to back out of putting all the pumpkin in if it looked like it would overwhelm it  (I didn’t – it all went in). They went into 8 big muffin cases, with Babs’ help, and into the oven for longer than expected – they needed 30 minutes rather than the 20-25 I might have expected.

I have to say, they were pretty good. And I should admit that, in my haste, I pulled them out too quickly, and though nicely risen, they needed a little longer, so flopped, but they were really quite yummy. We brought some home (and left the muffins, which my mum enjoyed, behind) and frosted them with some Betty Crocker Cream Cheese Frosting I have in the fridge, and they were pretty tip-top.

The rest of the poor pumpkin? I left, guiltily, in my mum’s fridge.

*Don’t panic: the rest is from my two amazing Grandmas.

The Sun: tensions and teenage nudity

March 17, 2010

Yesterday’s shocking ‘Teen Sex Scandal’ headline on the sun was (I read over too many people’s shoulders) ‘Lap dancer aged 14‘. The article, reprinted on the website, starts: ‘BAYING men watched as a boozed up girl aged just 14 gyrated at a lap-dancing club until 3am’. It goes on to tell us that for £20, men ‘in their 30s’ paid for extras – which could include her naked body inches from their face.

Yet despite this puritanical tone, it was business as usual on Page 3, which, like every day of the week featured a young lass with her tits out. Displaying your nakedness for male consumption over breakfast or alongside women commuters on the train being a perfectly acceptable aspiration – just not ’til you’re 18. And on the homepage today, a promo for more core material, ‘We’re No. 1 for babes’, with several women in their undies.

Apparently the Sun and its readership see no tension here.

I really can’t be bothered making cinnamon rolls…

March 17, 2010

So will someone make these for me? Please?