The Lawn

15/04/2014

It is amazing what a difference simply mowing and edging the lawn makes!  It’s still about 40% dandelion but that can be over looked when you see the nice, crisp edges and neat mown grass!

Before

Before

 

After

After

I’m in the Garden!

14/04/2014

Hi Everyone!

Well, as you can see I did my usual trick of disappearing into the garden at the first sign of spring.  My kitchen has been abandoned to languish in the doldrums of pasta and pesto dinners as I spend every spare minute of daylight out in my garden trying to put in all the groundwork so that come that ever so fleeting British Summertime I can enjoy the fruits of my labours in my idylic little patch!

However, this year I figured that instead of allowing you to be greeted by radio silence perhaps you might like to see what I’ve been up to.  It will all loop back to food eventually, I have plans for a bit of a veg patch and am already anticipating a gorgeous glut of courgettes to reward me come summer.  And let’s not forget the BBQs I’m already planning on my cosy little patio!

Now, when I moved into this house in September this is what I started with:

The view down to the house when I first moved in.

The view down to the house when I first moved in.

After a bit of mowing it's still quite a mess!

After a bit of mowing it’s still quite a mess!

In some ways it is perfect, a blank canvas! But it was very far away from the garden I dreamed of.  I love that typical English Cottage Garden look, big beds full of flowers all year round, a little patio area perfect to while away the summer evenings and long weekends, a place where friends can gather and relax.  So I have a lot of work cut out for me!

I had a bit of a head start in that all of my plants at my last house were in pots as I had only had a yard there so I had the filling, it was the structure that I was lacking!

The first stage in the garden, moving in the plants!

The first stage in the garden, moving in the plants!

The first major change was that nextdoor (who moved in around the same time as me) decided to redo their fence.  Now, technically that one is my fence but they were paying and I didn’t object!  Not neccessarily the fence I would have chosen myself but infinitely better value!

An unexpected challenge was what to do about all of the local cats who had decided that my lawn was their litter box.  You can see the sonic scarer I put in first… don’t bother.  As far as I can tell it scared away may be one of the cats.  The rest continued until I finally hit upon Wilkos’ Cat and Dog Repellent Granuals, they’re awfully garlicy but they WORK! I’m still not done fighting this particular war but it’s down to the occasional skirmish now.

The right hand border cut from the turf.

The right hand border cut from the turf.

My first major step in the garden was to start by putting in the large flower bed I wanted… well, I wanted to eradicate the lawn competely and give over the entire garden to flower beds but I was over ruled by my mother, who pointed out that I would want somewhere to put a sun lounger in the summer and could I really afford to plant up the whole garden in one go?  The woman had a point and so I cut a 90cm border down the right hand side of the lawn.  I did it all properly, measuring and marking with string, using a long plank to keep the edge straight.  Let me tell you that was a labour of love!  I saved all the turf and made a loam pile too (more of which in a later post!)

The brand new border and flat edging made from recycled firebricks from old storage heaters.

The brand new border and flat edging made from recycled firebricks from old storage heaters.

Having spent hours digging up turf, digging over the soil and adding compost (with a knackered back following a car crash no less!) I then decided that 90cm was too narrow and I added an extra 20cm strip to the edge.  This allowed the outside edge of the edging to finish in line with a paving slab at the top, which looked a lot better at that end and also alowed me to retain a decent sized border even with the flat edging I wanted to use.  That edging is a stroke of recycling genuis on my part!  Those are the fire bricks I salvaged from the storage heaters at my last house and then brought with me to this house.  (Over the vehement objections of my parents! Ha, suck it!) They are flat to the lawn and the bed, which will allow me to mow right up to the edge of the lawn without a bit of bother.  If I’m keeping the lawn, I’m making it as painless as possible!

The read of the bed is edged with salvaged slate roof tiles.  The garden next door is at a lower level than mine so at some pointe the soil on my side is a good few inches up the fence so the idea behind the slates is to just give the fence a little bit of protection from the soil.  Also, I just really love slate!

The border with all of the plants in their pots being arranged.

The border with all of the plants in their pots being arranged.

Next the plants in their pots were placed in the positions I thought I wanted them to go in in the bed.  The basic idea is herbs nearest the patio and back door for easy cooking access.  Then a section for flowers, then shrubs at the far end with a small section of roses furthest away.  I really took my time over this bit making sure I was happy and had thought each bit through, how high the plants would grow, when they would flower etc.

The right hand border all planted up.

The right hand border all planted up.

And finally, the plants go into the bed at long last!  I’m pretty sure I’ve covered all of my bases and this arrangement should grow into exactly the kind of bed I want.  There’s still some room for additions and changes and everything should fill out nicely.

I’ll do another post to show some of my inspirations that are guiding the project.  My Pinterest has an ever growing collection of ideas and inspirations.  I’m also a huge National Trust fan and visit all sorts of places with a special love for the gardens.  If I can end up with a garden that is even vaguely remeniscent of some of my favourite gardens then I shall be happy indeed!

 

Hungarian Goulash

17/02/2014

When the weather is cold and wet there is nothing better than a dish you can bung in a casserole and simmer.  Not only do you get whatever deliciousness you’re conjuring but you also get the delicious aromas drifting about as it simmers, allowing you to anticipate and relax!  Hungarian Goulash is one of those recipes that has been a staple in my family forever.  In fact, prior to acquiring my mother my father had but one cook book and Hungarian Goulash was one of the only recipes he cooked.  (Chilli Con Carne and Spaghetti Bolognese also featured in his repetoir I belive!)

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Serves 4

250g diced pork
2 x 40g tins chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato puree
1 tsp paprika
1 red pepper, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped*
100g mushrooms, quartered
salt and pepper to taste

- Heat a splash of oil in a large, heavy casserole.
- Add the pork and cook til browned.
- Add the tomatoes, puree, paprika, peppers and mushrooms.  Give it a good stir and season to taste.
- Swill out the tomato cans with a little water (about 1/4 of a can for each) add to the casserole.
- Bring it to a boil, put the lid on and turn down to low.
- Allow to simmer for 45 minutes until the sauce is reduced, glossy and thick.
- Serve with tagliatelle, rice or mashed potatoes, whatever you fancy.  A dollop of creme fraiche also goes very nicely!

*Optional, we all have Opinions about green peppers.

Fast Day Stir Fry

10/02/2014

I think that I’m rather beginning to get into the swing of Fast Day recipes now!  The temptation at the beginning was to just keep it simple and stick to basics.  You can’t really mess up a grilled chicken breast and a plate of steamed veg, can you? But that got boring, fast.  I like to look forward to my dinner, especially when I have to look forward to it all day without even the blip of lunch to see me through.  So I’ve been playing around with some fancier options recently.

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This dish is still simple, and it does essentially comprise a plate full of chicken and vegetables.  But presentation is everything!  You eat with your eyes first, after all.  By stir frying you get a different texture and the cauliflower ‘rice’ adds a visual appeal and a satisfaction that I just don’t feel you would get if you just added cauliflower into the stir fry.  The crunchiness of the baby corn and sugar snap peas is incredibly welcome after a day’s abstinence and the punch that you can pack into what boils down to the simplest of sauces gives you a lot of flavour for very little!  The other nice bonus is that this is a proper plate full of food.  You certainly can’t feel deprived looking at that!

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Serves 1 (~300cal)

100g cauliflower, coarsely grated
1/2 tsp five spice
~125g chicken breast, sliced
100g courgette, sliced
100g baby corn, halved
50g sugar snap peas, halved
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
a dash of boiling water

- Place the grated cauliflower in a microwave safe bowl and add a pinch of five spice and a pinch of salt.
- Stir well and add 1 tbsp water.
- Microwave for 2 minutes on full power.
- Heat your non stick frying pan or wok.  (Now, as with any dry frying, non stick is your friend.  Do not try it with anything else or you will weld that chicken to the pan!)
- Add the chicken and cook until just browned.
- Add the remaning five spice and the courgette, corn and peas.
- Stir fry until the courgette is just starting to soften and is catching a little colour.
- Add the soy sace, oyster sauce and just a dash of boiling water.  Just enough to cover the base of the pan.  If you add too much, simply boil until the sauce is reduced.
- Make sure everything is coated in sauce by stiring well then serve with your cauliflower “rice”.

NB. If you want to make this gluten free make sure you have the right soy and oyster sauces!

Oyakodon

03/02/2014

When the weather is dull and wet as it has been recently, I get serious cravings for Japanese food.  We English may think we know rain, and to an extent we do.  We certainly have a lot of different rains.  Japan simply has RAIN.  As in, buckets and buckets, step outside without an umbrella and be drenched to the skin within 5 meters RAIN.  And when the heavens open, and keep opening, there is absolutely nothing better than finding some tiny little out of the way eatery, thick with a fug of steam and soy sauce and mirin, and hunkering down until the warmth seeps back in and you are ready to face the day once more.

Now, by all rights, what follows should be a recipe for Ramen… but I can never make ramen that is anything other than a poor, pale immitation of proper ramen.  And I know why this is.  It’s all about the stock.  One day I will spend an entire weekend carefully crafting the perfect bowl of ramen but until then I content myself with being able to whip up a number of easy, quick, filling, and delightfully warming Japanese dishes, such as this one.

Oyakodon translates as Parent and Child Bowl, which tickles me rather.  The combination of chicken and egg is a brilliantly satisfying one.  This dish really hits every single one of my savoury cravings and is always a winner in my kitchen.

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Serves 2

150ml dashi stock
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp mirin
3 tbsp soy sauce
2 chicken breasts, in chunks (or you could use 2 large chicken thighs, skinned and boned)
1 onion, sliced /1 leed, sliced diagonally*
1 egg, beaten
sticky rice to serve

- In a deep frying pan combine the dashi, sugar, mirin and soy sauce and bring to the boil.
- Add the chicken and onion / leek and simmer for 8-10 minutes until the chichen is cooked through.
- Pour the beaten egg over the top of the sauce.  Do not stir!
- When the egg has set serve over a bowl of sticky rice.

*Sometimes I use an onion, sometimes I use a leek.  I think the onion is more traditional but I was given it with leek in too.  I like squeaky leek but if you don’t then just go with onion!

Red Lentil Daal

27/01/2014

Over the last year surely everyone has heard of the 5:2 Fast Diet?  Well, I am one of the latest people to give it a try.  I haven’t been doing it for long enough to really pass judgement yet.  Suffice to say, it’s not hard, you just have to have some will power, and perhaps a little creativity too!   Whether or not you’re interested in fasting, this is a delicious, low fat, low calorie dish that can be enjoyed any day you like!

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Serves 2 (~170 calories each)

1 / 2 squirts olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp nigella seeds
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
75g red lentils
salt and pepper to taste
fresh coriander to serve

- Heat the oil in a medium saucepan.  You really want to be using as little as physically possible here, it really is to just stop the onion sticking.
- Add the onion and garlic and cook until just turning translucent.
- Add the herbs and spices and cook for another minute.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and about half a can of water.  (Swish it around to get the last tomato bits out.)
- Add the lentils and bring to the boil.
- Simmer for 30 minutes over a low heat.
- Season to taste and serve scattered with fresh coriander.
- A grilled chicken breast makes an excellent addition too!

Spicy Asian Butternut Squash Soup

20/01/2014

As a part of my recent transformation into a healthy eater I have become a huge soup convert! I have soup for lunch every day at work and most of the time it’s home made. I discovered that bread really doesn’t sit right with me day in, day out. Now it’s more of a weekend treat. But this meant that sandwiches were off the menu. I will never, ever, be a salad loving girl… Or at least, the kinda of salads I will eat will never be considered healthy! (Bacon, avocado, DRESSING!)

Soup was my salvation. It’s hot, a life saver for those of us with body temperature issues, filling, especially for a liquid, and most of all healthy! I like to eat my soup with 2 rice cakes for a little bit of crunch. (There’s another dieting secret, rice cakes are freakin’ delicious! No one ever told me that!) There really is no end to the tricks you can play with a basic combination of vegetables and stock.

This soup started life as a plain old Butternut Squash Soup. It was good but when I tasted it I thought “This could do with some zing!” So I added some lime juice. Then I thought “This needs a little punch” so the fish sauce came out. And then the coconut milk was just a natural progression and while I was at it why not add some chilli and spices and really give it some pep? And so, Spicy Asian Butternut Soup was born. Enjoy!

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Serves ~6

1 medium butternut squash, peeled and chunked
Olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 chicken stock cube (vegetable if vegetarian soup is desired)
1/2 tsp chilli flakes or 1 fresh chilli, chopped
1 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp fish sauce
100ml coconut milk (or cream, or powder, whatever you have is fine!)
1/2 tsp dried ginger (2cm fresh grated ginger would be better but I didn’t have any)
1/2 tsp dried coriander

- Heat the oven to gas mark 6/ 200C while you prep your butternut squash.
- Toss the chunks of butternut with the olive oil on a large baking dish or tray and scatter with a pinch of sea salt.
- Roast the squash for 30 minutes until just starting to colour and crisp up a little bit.
- Heat a splash of olive oil in a large heavy pan.
- Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook until just turning translucent.
- Add the butternut squash, the stock cube the chilli and ~1.5l of boiling water.
- Bring to a boil then turn off the heat.
- Use a handheld stick blended to blend the soup until smooth. (Dependent upon your squash you may find you have quite a thick soup at this point. Just add more water if you prefer a runnier consistency.)
- Add the lime juice, fish sauce, coconut milk, ginger and coriander and give a good stir to circulate everything properly.
- Make sure you taste it as you go! If you feel it needs a little something extra, go for it! This is your soup, tailor it to your preferences!

B52 Cake

13/01/2014

If I haven’t mentioned the Clandestine Cake Club recently let me refresh your memories!  Basically, you bake a cake, turn up at a clandestine venue and chat with fellow baking enthusiasts while digging into everyone’s cake.  Sounds good, huh?  I happen to have taken over organisation of the York Central CCC  and I really enjoy the opportunity to meet new people and have a good old chat about cakes, baking and everything else going on in our lives at the time! There are clubs all over the UK, and indeed, all over the globe, so check out the website for a club near you if this sounds like your kind of thing!

This B52 cake was for the ‘The Sun Is Over The Yardarm’ event, calling for boozy cakes.  I went for one of my favourite shots, the gorgeous B52: a combination of a layer of Baileys, a layer of Kahlua and a layer of Cointreau.  YUM! To translate this into a cake I decided to go for a layer of Kahlua soaked sponge, a layer of Cointreau soaked sponge and all topped with a Baileys and marscapone icing.  This was a stroke of genius, if I do say so myself!

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Serves 12

200g unsalted butter
200g golden caster sugar
4 eggs
200g self raising flour
3 tbsp milk
zest of 1 orange
3 tbsp espresso
3 tbsp Kahlua
3 tbsp Cointreau
200g granulated sugar
375ml water
500g full fat mascapone ( DO NOT buy low fat, it will be runny!)
100g icing sugar
3 tbsp Baileys

- Heat the oven to gas mark 4 / 180C and grease and line 2 sandwich tins.
- Cream together the butter and sugar.
- Beat in the eggs.
- Fold in the flour.
- Add the milk and mix until combined.
- Divide your mixture between two bowls.
- Into one bowl add the orange zest, into the  other add the espresso and mix well.
- Pour one batter into one sandwich tin, and one into the other.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes, testing with a toothpic to check for doneness.
- In the meantime combine the sugar and the water in a small pan and heat until all of the sugar is dissolved.
- Divide the sugar syrup in two.
- To one syrup add the Cointreau, to the other the Kahlua.
- If they’re watertight keep the cakes in their tins, if you think your tin will leak, turn out the cakes onto separate plates.
- Prick the cakes all over with a toothpick.
- Gently spoon the Kahlua mixture over the coffee cake and the Cointreau mixture over the orange cake and leave to soak for at least 3 hours, preferably overnight.
- Once the cake has absorbed all of the liquid turn out and press the two layers together.  (They should be moist enough to stick slightly to each other without any need for icing.)
- In a new bowl mix the marscapone, the icing sugar and the Baileys together.
- Spoon this on top of the cake and swirl around until pleasing.
- Enjoy!

Breakfast Omelettes To Go

06/01/2014

I have a complicated relationship with breakfast.  I am NOT a morning person.  I am about as far from the concept of a morning person as it is possible to get.  If given the option to choose more sleep over almost anything else I will do it.  I am the queen of “5 more minutes”.  Which leaves me with a problem: Breakfast.  Because I will always, always, choose to stay in bed for those fabulous “5 more minutes” over getting up and getting breakfast.

For years I just skipped breakfast.  I would grab something mid morning when I was more up to thinking and eating, usually something sweet and sticky!  Or I’d grab some pop tarts or a croissant and run out of the house.  And that’s where my second problem happened.  Sugary breakfasts do not agree with me.  I’ve been working through some health issues this year and one thing I’ve been paying much more attention to is the food I’m eating and the effect it has on me.  Sugary breakfasts are great, I mean, it’s sugar, yum! But I find that if I’ve had a sweet, carby breakfast I am slower to wake up, I feel sluggish all day and generally down in the dumps.   I also run out of energy by the time I get home after work and often succumb to a nap.  All in all not ideal.

But it’s not all doom and gloom! I found a solution;  Sugar wasn’t working for me but I needed to eat something to get me through the day.  Eggs.  Eggs are a classic for a very good reason: They’re awesome! But mornings were still an issue for me.  So I needed to find a way to have something egg based that I could prepare in advance and then just grab and go.  Breakfast Omelettes To Go were born!  Not only do they give me energy, I feel full until lunchtime, no need for a sugary morning snack, I feel bright and clean and energised throughout the day.  They are easy to eat on the go, or to wolf down while the kettle boils and they also help me get my veggie portions in.  They also come in at around 100cal each, so ditching the sugar and turning to these has also helped me lose weight I desperately needed to lose without feeling like I’m missing out on anything at all.  All in all these are a total winner for me!

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Makes 6 mini omelettes (I either eat 2 for a perfectly filling, under 200cal breakfast!*)

12 baby plum or cherry tomatoes, halved
1 roasted red bell pepper, chopped
2 handfuls spinach
6 large, free range eggs
splash of semi-skimmed or skimmed milk
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
1/2 tsp corriander
salt and pepper to taste

- Heat a very small splash of olive oil in a frying pan.
- Add the tomatoes and pepper.  Cook, stiring, until the tomato skins are starting to burst and colour.
- Add the spinach and stir occasionally until wilted and any excess water has evaporated.  Get a nice char on the veg if you can.  (Beware the smoke alarm!)
- Divide the vegetables equally between the holes of a 6 hole silicone muffin tray.  **
- In a jug mix the 6 eggs, splash of milk, chilli flakes, corriander and salt and pepper.  Beat with a form to combine.
- Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables equally between the 6 holes.  This should come up to just the top of the holes.
- I cook mine for 15 minutes in my toaster oven at 220C.  You could use a grill or cook them in a regular oven at 200C.  You could even microwave them for 2-3 minutes if your muffin tin will fit in and turn round cleanly.  You want to cook them until they are just set in the middle.
- Once they are cooked and cooled put them in easy to grab tupperware in the fridge.
- In the morning bung them in the microwave for 2 minutes and enjoy!

* Variations: Why not switch out one omlette for a turkey sausage (tasty and low fat!) or add some closed cup mushrooms to the box too (virtually calorie free and full of flavour!).  If you’re adding mushrooms cook everything for 2 1/2 minutes to ensure the mushroom is cooked.  You can also play around with the vegetables to your heart’s content!
** I generally don’t recommend using a silicone mould for muffins and cupcakes, you just don’t get as good a rise.  For this, however, a silicone mould is perfect.  The eggs just pop right out, no need to grease.

 

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Slow Cooker Bread

30/12/2013

When I first heard about the slow cooker method of cooking bread I was astounded.  There was no way that would work, right?  No way at all… I had to try it!

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I am rather happy to report that it does, indeed, work!  If you want a quick (slow), hands off way to get a loaf of sandwich bread on the table then this is a brilliant method!  And it is quite a versatile one too.  You can try it with breadbuns, flatbread, boules, anything really.  Just remember to line the crock pot as otherwise it will stick to the bottom (trust me, I’ve made these mistakes so you don’t have to!) and also remember to get the bread out of the slow cooker once it has finished cooking or you will get soggy bread due to condensation.  The only other issue is the anaemic look that this bread has… it’s not quite the glorious golden crust of home made bread.  A grill or a blowtorch takes care of that one though!  Just lightly toast the top of your loaf until you get the desired hue.

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This bread is the answer to my issues with crisp, crunchy homemade bread.  I am all for a cracking crust.  Really, I am… except when I’m not.  You know, when you really just want some worthless white bread for a soft sandwich, or your wisdom teeth are playing up and crunch is BAD!  I know that supermarket loaves are filled with horrible things, but prior to this loaf I had never managed to create a delicious, soft crust in my home cooked bread.  Now, I can finally get that delightfully squishy texture in the comfort of my own home!

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Makes 1 2lb loaf

500g strong bread flour
7g fast action yeast
2 tsp salt
3 tbsp oil
300ml tepid water

- In a large mixing bowl place the flour, then on one side the yeast and the other the salt.
- Mix to combine then all and make a well in the centre.
- Add the oil and the water.
- Mix until it all comes together into a dough.
- Knead for about 10 minutes until the dough is soft and elastic.
- (Alternatively, combine and knead using the dough hooks on a handheld mixer, or a stand mixer, whichever you prefer. For a truly hands off approach!)
- Shape your loaf and place in a tin (if using) or line the slow cooker.  (Check before starting that your loaf tin will actually fit in the slow cooker!)
- Place the loaf in the slow cooker, pop on the lid and turn it up to high.
- Bake for 2 hours.  This may well vary from slow cooker to slow cooker so check and if it’s not then just give it a bit longer.  When the base sounds hollow, it’s done!

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