Sunday, 29 January 2012

Seed saving

There's nothing better on a dull, January day than planning for the coming growing season - which is why I spent yesterday afternoon with my head deep in my seed box and my annual Excel planning sheet! I also got round to putting some of the seed I saved in the autumn into jars; they've been drying in the cupboard under the stairs in paper bags. One of my goals for 2012 is to save a lot more seed and reduce the amount I order each year - so I'm off to a good start with my coriander, dill and calendula. A great resource, for if you're thinking about saving seeds, is the Real Seed Catalogue - each packet contains information not just on sowing, growing and harvesting, but also on how to collect the seed at the end of the season.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Carrots, carrots, carrots

It's all about the carrots at the minute for our baby. She still eats a lot of different foods (we've not hit the 'fussy' phase quite yet), but there are some foods she's practically guaranteed to eat every time: sultanas, tomatoes, porridge (with sultanas in it), mushrooms and carrots. So here are two carrot-based recipes for you if your little one likes carrots too. The first, I'm proud to say, is completely my own invention and the second comes from the, now classic, Baby-led Weaning Cookbook.

Thick carrot soup
250g carrots, peeled and chopped to suit your baby
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1/2 large onion, sliced thinly
80g red lentils, rinsed and drained
1 tsp cumin

1. Fry the onions until soft.
2. Add the garlic, cumin and the lentils and stir for about a minute.
3. Add 750ml of water (or chicken or vegetable stock if you prefer - but use a low-salt variety if this is for a baby or toddler) and bring to the boil.
4. Cover and simmer for between 1hr and 1/1/2 hrs, until the soup has reduced to a thick consistency.
5. Meanwhile, cook the carrots in water until tender and drain. Mash half the carrots with a fork and then add all the carrots to the soup.
6. Cool and serve - this should make 3 or 4 portions, depending on how much your baby eats and if you're eating it too!

This makes a lovely thick soup with some different textures from the mashed and whole carrot pieces. Open to endless variation - try roasting the carrot and garlic in the oven together and adding these to the cumin-y, lentil-y stock. Or add some additional vegetables.

Sugar-free carrot cake
200g self-raising flour and 1 tsp of baking powder
110g dates, finely chopped
50g dessicated coconut
50g nuts (walnuts, mixed nuts, etc) finely chopped or ground
3 tsp mixed spice
110g melted butter (unsalted)
110g sultanas
1 large carrot, grated
grated zest of 1 orange and 2 tbsp orange juice
2 eggs, beaten

For the topping/filling depending on how you're making your cake:
200g mascarpone
100g dates, finely chopped
zest and juice of 1 orange

1. Preheat the oven to 150 C/Gas Mark 2 and lightly grease a deep 20cm round cake tin (or two shallow round cake tins if you want to make a layered version as I did).
2. Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl and add the dates, coconut, nuts and spices. Mix thoroughly, then make a well in the centre.
3. Combine the melted butter, sultanas, carrot and orange zest and juice. Add to the dry ingredients and combine to a thick paste. Add the eggs and mix thoroughly.
4. Spoon the mixture into the cake tin and place in the oven. Bake for 45-60 minutes or until done (check with a skewer).
5. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes then remove from the cake tin(s) onto a wire rack to cool completely.

6. If using, blend the topping/filling ingredients together and spread over the cake.

This cake was absolutely demolished by our 1-year-old and the adults enjoyed it too. I left out the nuts as she hasn't had any at all yet and I want to check that she doesn't have a reaction (and didn't want this to be a birthday cake-A&E scenario!). It doesn't keep too long before drying out, so do eat it quickly. It was also the driest cake mix I've ever seen - so don't worry at the mix stage if you feel it's a bit sticky/clumpy - it should still come out ok!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Shaking off the winter blues

I used to hate January. Or rather, since my mid-twenties, every year I've come to feel a growing sense of unease in late December, deepening to depression as the new year hits. I had trouble sleeping, lacked energy and enthusiasm and absolutely loathed the thought of having to go back to work after the Christmas break. I'm sure that there were many reasons for this - the combination of the darker days, the post-festive slump, but also the feeling of time passing and my life still not measuring up to some increasingly unrealistic goals (rats, I really have left it too late for that stage career and hmm, how likely is a lottery win so that I can afford that little place in the country?!).

Fortunately, last January and this one, I've felt a lightening of the darkness. Last year, I spent the first half of the month waiting for the baby to arrive, and then was frankly too tired and overwhelmed and busy and (once we'd got into the swing of things) happy to spend much time in introspection. And this year has been different again. Yes, I've felt a little blue under these grey skies, but something's changed and I don't think it's only because we're become a family. Rather I think it's that I have finally found a work-life balance that suits me. In some ways, it's a shame that there is so much pressure on us to work 5 days a week and that it feels like the only acceptable way to work less requires the 'excuse' of childcare. I've returned to work on a 4-day contract (although technically I've been working only 3 days to use up some accrued leave but that ends soon) and it has made a huge difference to how I feel about both work and my time at home. After 11 months on maternity leave I was looking forward to going back to the Office and that feeling of enjoyment is still with me most days (hey - who doesn't have off days?!) Equally, my time spent at home, with my family is also better - there's more of it, for one thing, which means that it can be savoured rather than that inevitable sensation that there's not enough time to get everything done, or the even worse feeling that you've just wasted 2 days doing nothing at all (although I'm all for the occasional slob-out, this is an increasingly rare occurence with a small child).

Working part-time gives you that additional space to breathe. To do the things that you want to do, as well as all the things that you have to do. I've got more time in the kitchen, more time in the garden (or at least, planning for the coming growing season), more time to make things, to spend time with people I love and to make new friends and find new hobbies. I'm incredibly lucky that my work is supportive of part-time hours (frankly, if the baby rate in our Office keeps up we'll have more people working part-time for childcare reasons that full-time!) But if you do have the opportunity to work less and play more (or just work at something else) then I'd say 'don't hesitate' - money may make the world go round, but it doesn't always have to be the most important thing in our lives.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Happy New Year!

Mayan calendar (iStockphoto/Angel1978)
Happy New Year to you and yours! I hope 2012 is full of love, laughter and ludicrous amounts of cake (I know mine will be!)

I must confess, I was asleep by 11pm last night - but when you've got a baby you've got a fairly good excuse for not burning the midnight oil on New Year's Eve. I've never really been a New-Year's-Eve-r - why celebrate something that's happened rather than celebrating the start of something new?

So here's to 2012 - I've got my fingers crossed for a paradigm shift in human consciousness towards each other and the planet rather than a world-ending catastrophe - how about you?!