Monday, 7 December 2009
To make the mincemeat
(from River Cottage Handbook No 2 - Preserves, by Pam Corbin)
1 kg apples
500g firm pears
500g mixed dried fruits (eg raisins, sultanas, currants, etc. I suppose to be extra-Christmassy, you could use cranberries and I may try that next year!)
100g crystallised stem ginger
Finely grated zest and juice of 3 oranges
100g orange marmalade
250g demerara sugar
1/2 tsp ground cloves
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 nutmeg, grated
50ml ginger wine or cordial (optional, NB I added 50ml syrup from a jar of stem ginger in syrup)
100g chopped walnuts
50ml brandy or sloe gin (NB I added about 80ml....)
Wash the apples, core and dice, then put into a saucepan with the orange juice. Cook gently until tender, about 15 mins. Blend to a puree in a liquidiser if you're sensible or push through a sieve if you've absolutely no common sense and arms of steel. You should end up with about 700 ml of apple puree.
Put the puree into a large bowl and add all the other ingredients, minus the brandy. Mix thoroughly, cover and leave to stand for 12 hours.
Preheat the oven to 130c/gas mark 1/2. Put the mincemeat in a large baking dish and bake, uncovered, for 2-2/1/2 hours. Stir in the brandy or gin then spoon into warm, sterilised jars (see how to sterilise jars here). Seal and store in a dry, dark, cool place until Christmas. Use within 12 months.
So, my mincemeat has been maturing nicely since mid-September and this recipe gave me three 380ml jars of filling.
Now for making the mince pies
(from The Christmas Book, ed., Sherherazade Goldsmith)
225g plain flour
125g chilled unsalted butter, diced
A large pinch of salt
1 large egg yolk
about 100ml hot water
2 tbsp milk
icing sugar to decorate
Mix the flour, butter and salt in a bowl and rub the butter into the flour until it forms consistent crumbs.
Add the egg and a couple of spoonfuls of water. Mix with a knife, making sure you are incorporating all of the flour mixture. Add a little more water as needed until you can squash the mixture together and it sticks. Don't use too much tho! Add a little at a time.
Turn your dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it becomes smooth and slightly elastic. Chill for 10 minutes in the fridge, then roll out to 2mm thick and cut 24 discs with a round pastry cutter.
Preheat the oven to 190c/gas 5. Press each disc into the individual bases of a pie tray. Fill each pastry case with a teaspoon of the mincemeat. Don't be tempted to overfill, even if a spoonful doesn't look enough - it will be!
Top the pies with pretty shapes cut from the remaining pastry. Brush each with a little milk and bake for around 20 minutes, until just starting to colour.
Allow to cool on a wire rack, then sift over with icing sugar.
Sunday, 6 December 2009
Having said that, Christmas for me is always more about the trimmings than the main meat dish, which is why this year I've been perfecting my mince pies recipe before unleashing them on an unsuspecting public (also known as my co-workers). WH has been a willing guinea pig and I hope I have progressed significantly from my first batch (pastry 4/10 - although maybe it's just that WH is a perfectionist). I admit, I've ditched St Delia in favour of a pastry recipe from a book WH gave me as a pre-Christmas present: The Christmas Book, which is full of lovely ideas for homemade decorations, gifts and foodie treats. I made my mincemeat back in September following a recipe from another book I'd highly recommend: The River Cottage Handbook No. 2 - Preserves. This was using the apples from our apple tree, some pears from our Able and Cole delivery and stem ginger. I'll try and post the recipes and some snaps later this week.
Finally, did you know that around 3 million tonnes of waste are generated over the festive season? In our own small way, we're making a slightly different attempt to reduce our own festively-fuelled waste this year, by dispensing with the packaging-heavy branded chocolate advent calendars (plastic wrapper, cardboard shell, plastic inner AND foils?) in favour of a wooden advent calendar which can be used again and again. Isn't it pretty? And you can choose what goes inside ...
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
- that you shouldn't overfeed your crops, as this leads to too much soft green growth which is Mecca for aphids and other pests;
- that pests and predators need each other - if you use chemicals to get rid of all of your aphids, you will also get rid of your ladybirds, meaning that when the next generation of aphids arrive you'll have to spray again. Equally if you kill all of the aphids another way, the ladybirds and other predators won't have any food and will leave your garden, so condemning you to an endless cycle of otherwise pleasant summers evenings spent squashing bugs;
- that WH spent much of last summer unknowingly brushing ladybird eggs off our tomatoes, when if he'd let them hatch they'd have eaten all of our aphids (for those of you who are wary of making the same mistake, ladybirds lay little piles of small, yellow eggs, around thirty at a time, in clumps where they'll be likely to have aphids to feed on when they hatch);
- that the parasitic wasp is the grossest and yet the most magnificent predator ever and that ants farming aphids for the honeydew they excrete isn't as funny as it sounds;
- that it is a strange feeling to be the youngest person in the room by at least a single decade when you're pushing thirty.
- our bedroom
- living room/dining room
- the hall (as the stairs are open to the living room, we then had to do up the stairs wall and the whole upstairs landing.
I was very keen that we use VOC-free paints and found this article by Katherine Sorrell in the Guardian a very useful starting point. Having looked around at a few forums for DIY-ers (who knew?!) most of the feedback seemed to be pretty good, along with the useful info that you really should get the recommended ranges for use in bathrooms/kitchens as water-based paints don't cope so well with steamy conditions. The only negatives seemed to be complaints about the range of colours on offer in eco ranges, and the fact that these paints don't resist marks very well.
- they only use naturally-occurring ingredients. Note, however, that this doesn't mean that they are chemical free as is sometimes claimed, as many natural pigments and thickeners are chemicals. However, they are all non-toxic, which means that you aren't surrounded by things that can be harmful leaching in to your air, food and water;
- they also don't include any of the things you find in normal paints, like solvents, heavy metals, formaldehyde, or phthalates.
- The solvents in paint are what cause it to smell, so eco paints have practically no odour at all, meaning that you can use them without risk of a headache, even with the windows closed!
- Formaldehyde is a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC). VOCs in the air in our homes can cause allergies and asthmatic symptoms.
- Phthalates are a bugger for leaching into your general environment and there have been a range of studies showing that people have some phthalate residues in their urine and they can also turn up in breastmilk. Phthalates are quite difficult to avoid now, as they're in everything from deodorant to soft furnishings, but there is worrying evidence that they cause hormone disruption (endocrine problems) and birth defects - pretty nasty stuff.
- one other positive for eco paints is that they allow your walls to breathe, to expand and contract with the weather without cracking the paint, and also allowing moisture in and out without giving rise to damp. This is particularly useful in older houses built with materials fashioned in a more traditional way;
- Finally, because they don't contain any VOCs, eco paints help reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases.
In the end we plumped for ecos paints, which with 108 different colours to choose from (as well as a bespoke colour-match service which we didn't use), still gave us a difficult decision for choosing our final shades. We went for four main shades, which we've used throughout the house: maple (quite a deep red), white lily (what it says on the tin); amaretto (a very light biscuit colour) and sorrento (a mid-yellow). We bought them all as matt paints to paint straight on to the wall as-was (paint on paper) and the only shade we had a problem with was the maple, which was difficult to apply evenly. The other three shades were very easy to use and all four required only basic preparation (washing the walls and allowing them to dry) followed by two coats of paint, applied mainly with a foam roller. Our rooky mistake was in the ordering - the Ecos paint calculator took into account that we'd need to apply two coats but we didn't realise it was that clever and doubled our numbers. We've since painted the bathroom and the study as well and we still haven't had to order any more of the normal matt paint - in fact, we've enough to do the second bedroom too and still have some to give away (any takers?) We have just ordered some white lily in their eggshell range, which is specially created for kitchens and bathrooms, as we've found that, as predicted, the normal matt paint hasn't coped well with the steamy conditions in our bathroom.Our bedroom - maple and white lily
So, the answer to the bottom line question is, yes, it did cost us significantly more than normal paint. For a 5L tin of a dark colour we paid £31.85 rather than £17.99 for a DIY centre own-brand. But, we know exactly what we've put on our walls, we know it isn't harmful to us or the planet and, most importantly, we think it looks good!
Wednesday, 7 October 2009
Firstly, lets start with what we got for our life savings and 25 years of debt:
- Edwardian (1905), mid-terrace, three-bed house. The house was great and had lots of potential, but it was the 70+ ft garden that we really fell in love with!
- Double glazing (although not FENSA registered - everything needs a certificate now), some loft insulation, gas central heating to radiators and some fairly dodgy electrics (although it passed an electrical survey before we bought it);
- Walls, ceilings, coving, ceiling mouldings - in every room throughout the house were painted a slightly off-peach colour;
- Very nice hardwood floor throughout the living room/dining room, original floorboards in master bedroom, revolting purple carpet in second bedroom, lino in the bathroom and clip-lock wood flooring in the smallest bedroom (the study);
- Small but serviceable bathroom, with no storage;
- Two lofts with separate access - the main loft helpfully has a velux window, meaning lots of natural light to see the state of the insulation;
- The master bedroom has a shower. Not an en suite. A shower - where you might expect to find a cupboard, opening straight out onto a little patch of the bedroom floor that's been tiled. Even the estate agent described it as 'pretty strange';
- Kitchen that was the most disgustingly dirty room in the whole place - the 'cream' doors to the cabinets were beige, there were marks and detritus in every draw and cupboard, the laminate worktop is peeling, the tiles are orange and blue (bright), the mastic is grey.....
You can see some more pictures of the house before we did anything here.
So for the last two months we've had four major projects to occupy ourselves with:
- decorating: the main living and dining area is open plan and the stairs are open to that too, meaning to decorate the living room required decorating the dining room, up the stairs and the upstairs landing. We also decorated our bedroom before we moved in and we've been tackling the other rooms as time permits (we've just the second bedroom and the kitchen to go now)
- kitchen: we were lucky to receive a substantial gift from my grandmother, which has allowed us to plan to get rid of the kitchen, which besides the aesthetics only had a single oven in a strange place, only had limited space for a fridge/freezer, didn't have enough of the right kind of storage space, the oven isn't on the circuit breaker labelled 'oven', and so on. We've ordered our new kitchen and should be having it fitted early next month;
- electrics: at the same time, we're having some of the electrics re-done, as we need to put the kitchen on a separate ring, and generally modernise the electrics. Most of the work centres on the kitchen, but we're having additional sockets put in around the house and some data cabling for WH's geek projects (my god, I think there was talk of a server cupboard....)
- finally, the garden: as I said, it's very long (although only about 5ft wide). The estate agent particulars had it at 70ft, however our 25 m hose only stretches about half way, so we think they were out by a bit. We've already had a couple of large ash trees removed, WH has been doing a great job clearing the weeds from what was the main veg plot and I've been tidying up around the sides.
- finding a builder to fix the hole in the exterior wall that was noted on our homebuyers survey (shame not a lot else was!) - this was a good place to start
- getting an extractor fan fitted in the bathroom
- insulating the loft (someone from British Gas is coming to tell us how much they'd charge to do it, so we can change our minds and decide we'll just do it ourselves!)
A couple of pictures of the garden to finish:
Wednesday, 19 August 2009
WH and I have just got back from a short break for our wedding anniversary. We used a combination of public transport and our own two feet to get us from A to B, B to C, C to B, etc, and not at any point did we cry 'Oh, I wish we had a car!' (Of course, I wasn't dragging the suitcase). Here is how we did it:
Day 1: Train from Reading to Dawlish, Devon (direct).
The B&B in Dawlish was just a ten minute walk (uphill, admittedly) from the station. Arriving early afternoon, we then took in a short walk up the coast to Dawlish Warren along the sea wall (about 1.5 miles), then back to Dawlish for some very fresh fish and chips (the fish was fresh, the chips less so).
Day 2: Train from Dawlish to Torquay. Walk from the railway station through the town and up the hill to Babbacombe, to visit the model village (about 3 miles). We then walked back into town, indulged in a short game of crazy golf and then went to a lovely restaurant on the harbourside, Seaspray, which had great locally-sourced food (although WH did plump for the scottish salmon, I had a plaice fillet, which had been caught locally). Back to Dawlish by train.
Day 3: Bus from Dawlish to Bishopsteignton, then a walk up to a local vineyard (only 1 mile, but all uphill!). Old Walls Vineyard is one of five vineyards in the district and is family-owned - we were treated to a fantastic and very detailed tour by the owner himself. There was a break half-way for lunch, then a tasting to finish. Needless to say we came away with a bottle....
Back down the hill to the bus stop, then back to Dawlish. Dinner that evening was at a local bistro, Too Delicious, where we enjoyed some more locally-sourced produce in our starter of Brixham crab cakes, followed by steak for WH and chilli con carne for myself.
Day 4: Train from Dawlish to Exeter, where we spent the day discovering the city and buying some souvenirs. Back to Dawlish by train, and back to Too Delicious for dinner (it was that good). This time we both opted for fish and chips, which were definitely delicious and I finished with an amazing Devon cheese board.
Day 5: Another walk along to Dawlish Warren with another round of crazy golf (it was a different course, after all!), then back for lunch in Old Mill tea room before catching our train back to Reading.
Holidaying without a car:
- Yes, you do have to choose destinations that can be reached by public transport, but that isn't really a large restriction!
- Yes, you do have to plan your activities a bit more carefully. But that just involves a trip to the local tourist information at the start of your break to get local bus and/or train timetables.
- Yes, you do have to do some walking. But it's good for you. So there. It also serves as a great excuse for stuffing yourself at every opportunity (I neglected to mention the cream teas and ice creams we enjoyed - all from Devon, of course!)
- No, you don't have to camp
- I had enough of that as a child and fortunately WH enjoys the benefits of a nice comfy bed and private bathroom facilities just as much as I do. Indeed, campsites are often more difficult to get to without a car (not to mention carrying all that gear).
Sunday, 2 August 2009
So, we've been making the most of it. The garden has had a good old tidy up, with WH getting stuck in to the small rainforest that was the lawn (I followed with a rake - we had enough moss to build a deluxe bird hotel!).
The parsley has gone mad with all the rain we've had!
I've also had fun this weekend making watermelon ice lollies and croissants. The latter didn't turn out quite like shop-bought (they weren't terribly flakey) but they were tasty! Hopefully the ice lollies will be more successful ...
Marrow stuffed with 'italian' mince
(Tonight's dinner serves 2, with enough mince filling left over to make two portions of spag bol for tomorrow)
1 small/medium marrow
450g beef mince
Pinch of mixed herbs
2 cloves of garlic (this is fresh from the garden today!)
400g tin of tomatoes
1 tbsp sundried tomato paste
herbs and seasoning
Glass of red wine
Grated cheese for topping
- Preheat the oven to Gas 4.
- Chop the garlic and onion and sweat in a little olive oil in a large pan. Once they are transparent and beginning to colour, add the mince, tomatoes, s/dried tomato paste, wine and herbs to the pan and cook until the liquid has reduced - probably about 20 minutes. You could add stock at this stage as well, if you wanted even more flavour.
- Slice the marrow into chunky rings and scoop out the seeds. Place on a roasing tray
- Once your filling is ready, spoon it into the marrow rings and top with some cheese. Cover the roasting tray with foil and place in the oven for 30 minutes. Cook until piping hot and the marrow is just tender (NB this just took more like an hour rather than 30 mins!). Check the marrow is done by testing the flesh with a knife - a little resistance means it is done - very firm, then give it a few more minutes.
Watermelon ice lollies
(makes about 12)
1 mini watermelon (this came with our Abel & Cole box), de-seeded, mushed and sieved to make 1 pint of watermelon juice (NB this is incredibly messy - wear an apron and clear lots of room on the work surface, with plenty of cleaning cloths to hand...!)
100ml lime juice
125g caster sugar
- Put the sugar and water in a pan and heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add a couple of drops of vanilla essence and place the liquid in the fridge
- Once cool, add the watermelon juice and lime juice.
- Pour into molds and place in the freezer.
The croissant recipe was just out of my breadmachine recipe book. I might try a different one next time to see if the results differ ...
Thursday, 16 July 2009
Tuesday, 7 July 2009
House and home
- No pets (although WH and I do talk about getting a cat, or a dog, or a cat and a dog....)
- No dependents (again, currently still under discussion)
- Dramatically reducing our reliance on toxic chemicals for cleaning, which I've mentioned before. This extends to washing up liquid and washing powders, which are all Ecover
- We turn off appliances, often at the wall, when they're not in use. Actually, a couple of months ago, WH bought a gadget (like this one) for measuring the energy consumption of all of our appliances (because he's that kind of guy and likes to measure, compare and then formulate a plan of action). We discovered that the computers didn't use as much energy as we'd feared, and that our downstairs hi-fi was actually using a huge amount of energy just being plugged in (it used to lose all its radio stations if you turned it off at the wall). Result - we asked for a radio for Christmas and switched the hi-fi off at the wall. The idea was that we'd use it to play cds, but the result is actually that we just listen to the radio a lot more.
- As we're in rented accommodation and are in the process of buying a house we've not invested in composting facilities yet, but this will be one of our first purchases after we've moved. In the meantime, our council collects paper, cardboard and a lot of plastics. We take our glass to the nearest recycle centre and old clothes go to Oxfam. We've even begun to explore the joys of freecycle (although so far this has resulted in us obtaining some, albeit useful, garden tools and not in us actually giving anything away).
Food and drink
- Reducing our reliance on supermarkets. Most of our fresh food comes from other sources, but store cupboard ingredients and household goods (washing powder, toilet roll, etc) come from our local supermarket. We've moved to buying from an organic range wherever there is the option and, where we have to buy fresh produce, opting for the local variety (NB this finally put the nail in the coffin with our Tesco shopping - more than 20 varieties of apple on display, in early spring, and not a single one from the UK)
- Patronising local shops and suppliers, from the farmers' market to our butcher and still using the Oxford fishmonger (just requires a little planning)
- Starting to grow our own vegetables and being much better at eating seasonally (apart from the aforementioned apples, we're still buying them but now they're French...). We're completely organic in the garden, with no pesticides, fungicides or chemical fertilizers
- We only eat meat once or twice a week, and only ever opt for free-range, preferably organic, animals
- No car - our feet, our bicycles (to a lesser extent these days since WH had his front wheel nicked and hasn't quite got round to replacing it) and public transport get us around
- We don't tend to have more than one main holiday a year and this year we'll be staying in the UK for that one (a trend that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future). Festive and seasonal breaks tend to be spent at home, or with family (to whom we travel by train).
- I carry my copy of Metro off the train and recycle it at work (I used to use the 'someone else will read it so it's ok to leave it' argument, but now my train terminates at my station, so the abandoned papers just get junked).
- I've stopped buying quite so many books and have joined the local library instead
- As my toiletries and cosmetics run out, I'm replacing them with organic products made from natural ingredients (the range is really quite incredible now, but I'm particularly keen on Faith in Nature and Greenpeople)
- We are increasingly spending our spare time working in the garden, walking, meeting friends and other no/low-cost activities, rather than spending money on entertainments
Having done this exercise, I can see some pretty big gaps. The biggest relates to house and home - once our house sale goes through and we're genuine property tycoons (or, at least, owners) we'll be able to address things like ethical energy suppliers, insulation, alternative power generation, etc, but until that day comes we're not really making any effort to invest in these areas in a property that isn't ours. You can also argue that our current choices are based, to some degree, on things we wanted to do anyway. For example, I don't like driving, WH can't drive and we live in the SE, near to good transport links for getting around. We also aren't blessed/encumbered yet with children and, should this happen, it could put serious strain on our stand of not being car-owners (although there are plenty of people who do manage it, I don't want to set myself up for a fall by declaring I will never have a car). There are also some areas where it feels like we aren't putting in as much effort as we could do. Yes, we switch off electrical equipment when we're done, but both WH and I spend quite a lot of time using computers in our spare time (it's where a lot of my information and inspiration comes from for environmentally-friendly alternatives to cleaners, pesticides and the like, but still). Also, if we go out for a meal (maybe once a fortnight), all we believe about food miles, seasonality and animal welfare goes out of the window.
So I'm setting myself a little green challenge. For the next two months (until 7 September) I will:
- not buy any new items of clothes (this includes shoes). This is a tricky one for me, as I often use a little bit of shopping as a pick-me-up at the end of a long week. I don't buy masses and masses of clothes, but I have gotten into the habit of spending in the region of £100-150 a month on average. In order to cushion the shock of this, I have limited my challenge to 'new' clothes/shoes. I don't think I've ever bought second hand clothes, but if I'm jones-ing for a fix, I might allow myself this alternative.
- limit computer 'faffing' - those moments when you 'just' go online to check the weather forecast and end up, hours later, browsing odd book titles on Amazon - to ten minutes maximum per day. In fact, I think I'll go further than that. I will not use the internet on my lunch breaks unless I have a specific task to complete (internet banking, etc). I will only use the computer on one night each week (my writing night) and for a maximum of sixty minutes each day at the weekend (to include finding recipes, checking the weather forecast, writing blog entries, etc.)
- make an effort to only choose the seasonal/sustainable option for meals out.
I'll record my progress here and, hopefully, you'll trust me not to greenwash you....
Saturday, 4 July 2009
Strawberry mascarpone tart
Nigel Slater, The Kitchen Diaries
1 tbsp caster sugar
250g mascarpone cheese
2 drops vanilla extract
For the base:
250g sweet oaten biscuits (we used Nairn's oat digestives)
Rectangular tart tin (34x12cm)
For the crumb base, melt the butter in a saucepan and crush the biscuits to a fine powder (note, I actually did mine quite roughly - hope it turns out ok!). Thoroughly mix the crumbs and melted butter. Spoon this mixture into your tart tin and smooth them into the corners and up the sides. Press firmly but don't compact too much. Allow to set in the fridge.
Make the filling by first separating the egg. Put the yolk in a bowl and beat with the sugar. Beat in the mascarpone and then add the vanilla extract. You should have quite a stuff, light cream. Beat the egg white to stiff peaks then fold into the cream mixture. Spoon onto the base.
Hull the strawberries and slice thinly. Arrange them on top of the mascarpone. Keep cool until ready to serve.