Friday, 28 December 2007

Where I was

Epping Forest - April 2007

Thames Chase Park - May 2007

Caerfai Bay, Pembrokeshire - May 2007

Spiers House Campsite, Cropton Forest, North Yorkshire - July 2007

Lower Bentham, Lancashire - August 2007

Dial House Hotel, Gloucestershire - August 2007


Wanstead, East London - September 2007


Kew Gardens - October 2007


South Woodford tube station - November 2007

Friday, 21 December 2007


This post is inspired by C who woke up nice and early at 6:30 this morning in order to complete an entire workbook of multiplication and division sums "for fun" (honestly his idea, not mine...but I suppose the genes will out).

4 cups of coffee + 4 paracetamol + a handful of strepsils = no cold symptoms at all
4 children + 1 large bowl of popcorn = a full hoover

1 small child + 1 new camera = high battery usage
(2 x 5 year old girls) + 1 large tub of beads + elastic = 42 bracelets

(3 x 8 year old boys) + mud + ice + large sticks = the best fun in months

4 children + 1 large basket of DVDs = no agreement on which film to watch

4 children x 2 days = takeaway curry + large bottle of wine


As the holidays have started there are more children around than usual. It has been great fun!

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Packed lunches

I make so many packed lunches, that when the school holidays start I am always ready for a break. Thinking of imaginative sandwich fillings, or sandwich alternatives, saps my energy and enthusiasm as the months go by.
I have two great books that give me inspiration as the term wears on. Annabel Karmel's Lunchboxes looks beautiful and has loads of ideas for salads and savoury things as well as pages and pages of sandwich fillings. The Pret A Manger Salads and Sandwiches book I use for its wonderful and substantial salad recipes, although the book is half full of sandwich recipes as well. Their lentil, bacon and walnut salad with a balsamic vinegar and mustard dressing is gorgeous.
Here is my list of favourite sandwich fillings:
  • egg mayonnaise and ham ( I make the egg mayonnaise with half mayo and half salad cream, to make it slightly sharper and less sickly)
  • cheese, tomato and basil - an old one but a good one
  • cream cheese mixed with pesto, chicken and pine nuts
  • tuna mayonnaise, with chopped sun dried tomatoes, sweetcorn and spring onions. O would eat this every day if I let her
  • Coronation chicken and sliced tomato
  • hummus, avocado and red pepper
  • ham and sliced, sharp apple
  • grated cheese and grated carrot with marmite
Even by the end of term, when inspiration is flagging and we are all having plain old ham sandwiches far too often, our lunchboxes are still things of beauty and never fail to make me smile - even when the morning is dark and freezing cold.
Mine is the Cath Kidston spotty roses one. O has the pink marshmallows and C has the Dalek one, which growls "Exterminate!" at me when I zip it up. G leaves too early for me to make him a packed lunch each day (to my secret relief - four packed lunches each day might send me over the edge) so the gorgeous strawberry one is a gender neutral spare, for whoever has left their lunchbox behind the previous day.
You can get hold of other funky lunchboxes here, here, here or here.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Finally feeling festive

I'm starting to feel Christmassy now - it has taken a while.

It all started with the wonderful icy weather that came our way this week. I can't feel Christmassy when its raining, or when its blowing. I need frost or snow. Sadly both are not really very common in London...but when they come its wonderful! Freezing cold, brilliant white and blue winter weather is my absolute favourite type of weather.

I drive along the edge of Epping Forest on the way to school each morning, and I very nearly made us all late on Wednesday because I wanted to stop and take photos of the thick sparkling frost that had appeared overnight. C & O were horrified that they might be late though, so I let them off lightly by embarrassingly wielding my camera in the playground instead.

The cold weather has meant that hot puddings, stews and pies have all had to be made. There have been many meals involving roast parsnips, which to me are one of the defining tastes of winter. And I love remembering when I eat them, that the harder the frost the sweeter the parsnip.

There was also a less successful experiment with a hot pudding. I rarely cook hot puddings - stewed fruit is my usual offering - but it was so cold that I started to fantasise about a warm, steaming, sponge pudding with a sticky sauce and a slowly melting scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. I went for one of those scary recipes that start with making a basic sponge. You put the sponge mixture into a large dish with a good sprinkling of sugar over the top, then you pour over a jug of boiling water over the raw sponge mixture, slam it all into the oven and the sponge mixture steams while the sugar and water turn into a syrupy sauce....Its an odd and alarming method, but all my recipe books swear that it works. Maybe I used the wrong shaped dish?

School is nearing the end of term, and I went to two nativity performances in one day on Thursday. Both were wonderful, sweet and hysterically funny at times. Spot my very tall angel in the picture below!

And now, finally, the tree has gone up and we are in the home straight. A few weeks ago I went to Liberty with Mum for a bit of fabric shopping. We stopped by in their Christmas department and were in awe at the wonderful baubles. I could have bought all of these - so pretty.

But a tastefully toned or themed tree doesn't really do it for me, I like the fact that all the baubles and decorations we have gathered over the years have stories around them. There are the mini glitter balls given by my sister-in-law last year, that remind us of the annual Strictly Come Dancing excitement around Christmas time. There are some strawberries, given to berry-mad O by my Grandmother. There is a giant, iridescent blue bauble that was a present from G's brother when we first bought this house. It requires an especially thick and sturdy branch to hold it up. And there are two ceramic stars painted by C & O at Gill and Nat's shop.

This year, C is even tall enough to reach the top of the tree, so the tree is no longer weighed down with baubles at the bottom that later have to be redistributed by me further up the top.

Its time to start wrapping those presents!

Friday, 7 December 2007

Stewed fruit

I always want to call this something less reminiscent of school dinners or mass catering - the name doesn't do justice to one of the tastiest breakfasts or puddings I know. But any alternative I have tried - jewelled fruit, tempting compote - sounds pretentious and daft. So stewed fruit it is. This is easily my most frequently cooked recipe - it is rare not to find a bowl of stewed fruit in my fridge at any point

Stewed Fruit

Stone, skin, wash and chop the fruit as necessary. Put into a large heavy-bottomed pan with a little water (about half a cup for each 500g of fruit) and sugar to taste. Cook over a gentle heat, stirring occasionally, until the fruit collapses. You may need to add a little more boiling water form the kettle if it looks very dry, but go carefully - you don't want it watery.


Allow to cool and serve with natural yogurt, custard, vanilla ice cream or just by itself. The blackberry and apple version is incredible with a wicked spoonful of clotted cream on top.


Good fruit for stewing:

  • bramley (cooking) apples
  • plums, greengages or damsons
  • rhubarb
  • dried fruit such as prunes, apricots, pears or dates
  • raspberries or blackberries
  • cherries
  • fresh peaches or apricots
  • cranberries
  • bramley apples in combination with any of the above

I do as my mother always did, and always serve the stewed fruit in a large, cut-glass dish - perfect for showing off the incredible colours of the stewed fruit.

This nicely seasonal cranberry and apple version was finished off for breakfast this morning, with natural yogurt dolloped on top. Yum.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

This week's quotes

A list of things I have heard this week, that have made me laugh:
  • "Guess what! My mummy's got a baby in her tummy, and the baby's NAKED!!!" (O's friend, running into the playground on Monday morning).
  • "What do you mean they found it hard to balance? Don't they have a sense of balance from going skiing?" (an appalled work colleague, after I had told her about C & O's first time ice skating)
  • "Well it turned pink and then exploded..." (a very earnest woman on the tube, leaning across the carriage to talk to her friend)
  • "I am absolutely not ever going to do that" (me, in an important meeting at work, sounding like Charlie & Lola)
  • "You and Daddy love beer. You should marry beer" (O, to me, at breakfast time. C then clarified things by saying, "No - Daddy loves beer, Mummy loves cider")

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Time eaters

Here is my list of things that take far longer than you would expect:
  • Cutting out fabric for sewing - why have I still not grasped that it takes three times as long to pin the pattern and cut and press the fabric as it does to sew everything together? I should really not be surprised about this by now.
  • Teaching children how to blow their noses properly - how on earth can they bear to wander around sniffing or talking as though someone's poured cement into their heads? Bleurgh.
  • Going from East London to West London - its the same city, so it seems all wrong that it takes over an hour and a half to get from one side to the other.
  • Learning to dance - I've been trying to dance well for twenty five years now, and last summer I had a moment when I thought I might have cracked it...but it was just a moment.
  • Persuading a hen to get back into her run, when she's quite happy digging holes under the laurel bush, thank you.
  • Taking the perfect photo. This picture is, I think, the twentieth attempt at the acorn. But I love it!

Thursday, 29 November 2007

London Street Scenes - 300 years apart

Here is one of my favourite lists:

A London Street Scene
Young Drunkards reeling, Bayliffs dogging,
Old Strumpets plying, Mumpers progging,
Fat Dray-men squabling, Chair-men ambling,
Oyster-Whores fighting, School-Boys scrambling,
Street Porters running, Rascals battling,
Pick-pockets crowding, Coaches rattling,
News bawling, Ballad-wenches singing,
Guns roaring, and the Church-Bells ringing...

By Edward Ward, 1707

I think Oyster-Whores fighting sounds very exciting, and I have a great mental picture of Fat Dray-men squabling.

Some images, like Young Drunkards reeling and Pick-pockets crowding, are still here in London 300 years after that was written, but the rest of the piece would need some updating.

A London Street Scene
Police cars screaming, toddlers shouting,
Old cars rattling, neighbours yelling,
Teenagers blinging, foxes slinking,
Housewives sweeping, postmen flinging,
Litter blowing, buses stopping,
Nail bars preening, shop staff yawning,
Phones singing all damn morning.

By The List Writer, 2007

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

List season

This time of year – leading up to Christmas – sees me wallowing in lists. There are so many of them to be made.

  • A present list – very important. Usually there are two lists – one with presents for G and the children on it, which I keep very secret, and one with presents for other family and friends on it which I leave lying around and then worry about losing.
  • A menu plan – even more fun than the present list. This one I can happily start in October and keep amending until Christmas Eve. It involves me spending happy evenings curled up on the sofa with a pile of recipe books beside me and a helpful glass of wine by my side.
  • Out of the menu plan will come a shopping list and an order list. I’ll order as much of my Christmas food as possible from the local butcher, Abel & Cole, or other fancy places rather than slog round the supermarket.
  • There will also be a list of school things to do – costumes to be made, altered or borrowed for Christmas shows; presents to be made for teachers; cakes to be baked for random fundraising events and cards to be written to best friends.
  • I will enjoy drawing up a things to do over the holidays list with G and the children. My first contribution to this list will be a request to go skating somewhere in London.

    Bring it all on! With all these lists (I haven’t quite sunk as low as creating a Christmas List of Lists – but I admit it has crossed my mind….) I am loving the seasonal stresses.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Our obsessions

All four of us at the moment have some serious obsessions going on.

  • G - the usual swimming. He was up at 6am this morning in great excitement as he had a swimming lesson at Swim For Tri's endless pool in the old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane. He came home this evening with a DVD of his lesson for the rest of us to admire.
  • C - the Jiggy McCue books by Michael Lawrence. He was first lured into them by the most excellent title of the first book The Killer Underpants. We've bought C several books in the series now, and as soon as he gets his hands on the next one, he is immersed - barely surfacing to eat. There was much joy today when we found the last 3 he hadn't read, all in the library - that has just saved G & I about £20 at Amazon. He'd read one by bed time.
  • O - hama beads and more hama beads. I ordered some more from Bead Merrily this week as our stocks are already running low. She has switched production to decorations for the Christmas tree after a stray comment of mine. The tree will be entirely dressed in hama beads at this rate.

My current obsessions, as ever, are multiple.

  • aprons - I have recently made two for me, and last night made a small scale one for O from some very cute fabric that came all the way from Japan. O was charmed and looked so very, very sweet pottering around all day in her apron, that I fear I am just a small step away from making Mother and daughter matching ones.

  • nutmeg - I'll put it in anything I can, and am now even basing family meals around recipes that contain nutmeg. The smell is so heady and exhilarating, and I just love the little brown, brain-like appearance of the nutmeg once it has been grated a little.

  • posh chocolate and sewing books - really, what's not to like?

Monday, 19 November 2007

Soup season

The last time I made soup for the children, O burst into tears and wailed "You've given us sauce with bits in for tea, Mummy!".
They're not soup fans, despite me not really believing them and serving up soup fairly regularly. It never works - even when I tempt them with extras like croutons, grated cheese or tiny pasta stars - they are adamant they don't like it.

I really love soup though; as long as it is autumn or winter. I like my soup thick and starchy - not clear and delicate. I'm making loads at the moment - usually half to eat and half to stick in the freezer for when I can't be bothered to cook.

Here are my favourite soups:
  • Delia's curried parsnip and apple soup. It comes out a startling bright yellow colour and has the most beautiful sweet and sour flavour.
  • Minestrone - if I ever have a savoy cabbage in my veg box I use some of it to make minestrone as I love seeing the beautiful frilly leaves in the soup.
  • Corn chowder - thick, creamy and slightly sweet (in a good way).
  • Anna's roast vegetable soup.
  • Lentil and bacon soup (Pret do a very good version if I ever get too lazy to take in my own)
  • Homemade tomato soup - with grated cheese put in the bowl before pouring the soup on top, as they do in America.
  • Sweet potato and rosemary soup - my very own invention and one of my favourite ever soups.

Sweet potato & rosemary soup

  • 1 red onion
  • 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into chunks
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and chopped into chunks
  • a big handful of fresh rosemary, chopped very finely
  • 750ml or more chicken or vegetable stock

Chop the red onion finely and put it into a large saucepan with a good slug of olive oil and the chopped rosemary. Cook very gently for 10 minutes or so until the onion is softened. Add the chunks of carrot and sweet potato and continue to cook for another minute or so before adding the stock.


Bubble gently for about 20 minutes or until the carrot and sweet potato are soft. Blend, adding more water as necessary because the sweet potato is very thickening. Serve with plain,wholemeal buttered rolls.


Wednesday, 14 November 2007


My weekly vegetable box arrived yesterday. Here is what it contained:
  • red cabbage
  • pointed cabbage
  • broccoli
  • sweet potatoes
  • potatoes
  • onions
  • carrots
  • bananas
  • clementines
  • apples (tiny and very sweet and crunchy)

Opening the veg box and unpacking everything is one of my favourite parts of the week. I love Abel & Cole for having such a flexible system. Too many bananas? Just temporarily add them to your 'Do Not Include' list for a week or two and any bananas will be replaced with something else. Massively dislike celariac? Put it on the 'Do Not Include' list permanently. You can also order extras in season. At the moment I am getting a bag of cooking apples each week too.

Picking up all that fresh smelling, crunchy looking fruit and veg and wrapping it carefully up to store for the week ahead is a calming thing to do after a long day at work. As I put each thing away I enjoy thinking about what I am going to make with it. Here are my ideas for this week's box:

  • Braised red cabbage. Its got to be braised red cabbage, and its got to be the classic Delia Smith recipe . I'll serve it with herby sausages and jacket potatoes.
  • Sweet potato, bacon and rosemary soup. A recipe I made up a few years ago and loved so much that I actually wrote it down.
  • Banana and white chocolate muffins. There are various recipes including one in the new Nigella Express book. I've been making too many banana milkshakes recently and need to do something different with bananas.
  • The broccoli needs to accompany a casserole of some sort. Possibly lamb. Maybe I'll roast the carrots to go with it as well.
  • Steamed green cabbage with crispy bacon and a spoonful of creme fraiche stirred in at the end. A ten minute after work supper that is really tasty.
  • Apple crumble. Stewed apples. Apple Charlotte. Or maybe, as a special treat for C who is a little obsessed with maple syrup at the moment, pan fried apple slices with maple syrup and vanilla ice cream.
  • The clementines will last no more than a couple of days as they are snatched out of the bowl and eaten on the way past or stuffed into school bags or work bags for break times.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Sunday supper - the rules

When you've had a full-on Sunday lunch with the family, you probably want a light, easy Sunday supper for two. But you also want something a little special - that feels like a treat - because tomorrow it is work and school again.

Here are my rules for Sunday supper:
  • Start with toast and then find something tasty to go on it. Tonight we had egg mayonnaise and parma ham, but other good toppings are farmhouse pate with gherkins, welsh rabbit, tomatoes and basil, goats cheese, slices of avocado, ham....
  • Pour yourself a couple of glasses of something relaxing. Leftover cabernet sauvignon for us tonight.
  • Put everything on a pretty tray, find nice plates and dishes and arrange it all so that it looks like you are making an effort.
  • Pudding should be cake if you have any. Or leftover crumble from the Sunday lunch.
  • Eat in the front room, off your laps, whilst watching Antiques Roadshow and flicking through the weekend papers.

It finishes off your weekend perfectly.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Little, nice things

This morning I thought I could benefit from some more little, nice things in my life. This is what I found:

  • I bought myself a bunch of freesias when I went shopping this morning, and put them in my prettiest vase.

  • I also bought a bar of chocolate when I was in the supermarket, and when I got home, before I even started the unpacking, I sat down to eat a piece (or two...) as I drank coffee from my favourite mug.

  • I changed everybody's sheets, put on crisp, new pillowcases and smoothed down the duvets exactly as I like them.
  • I enjoyed the surreal sight of two police horses walking down our road. Very bizarre - I have no idea what they were doing strolling down a sunny, residential street. The policewomen who were riding were enjoying a good old gossip as well!

  • When the children came home from school they decided they wanted to do some paintings, and I was left with armfuls of bright primary-coloured firework pictures, brightening up my kitchen.

  • I went fabric shopping - on Etsy and in IKEA. The IKEA prints at the moment are mostly very large, so I ordered some tiny, sweet, patterned, Japanese fabrics from Etsy to balance things out a bit.
  • I cooked mushroom and spinach pilaf for tea and ate it on my lap whilst lounging on the the sofa and watching rubbish tv.

What a great day!

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Comfort food

I really hate mashed potato.

This surprises so many people. When I say that it is the food I hate most in the world, most people suddenly feel sorry for me.
"Oh, but mashed potato is the ultimate comfort food!" they will say, "how can you not like it? its so rich and comforting."

The texture just doesn't do it for me. And I am still scarred by my school dinner experiences with luke-warm mashed potato that had black lumps in it - that we were forced to eat with luke warm tinned plum tomatoes tipped over the top! Even writing that makes me shudder.

But there is plenty of classic comfort food that I do love, and I am cooking rather a lot of it now that the clocks have gone back and the central heating has been switched on again. I made this glorious-looking toad in the hole last week, from Nigel Slater's recipe in Real Food. Greedily, the four of us devoured this entire dish at one sitting - the children asked for thirds!

Other favourite autumn and winter comfort foods:

  • any kind of risotto
  • jacket potatoes, with leeks in a white sauce poured over the top
  • cauliflower cheese
  • chocolate cake
  • any kind of crumble
  • lamb curry
  • minestrone soup
  • porridge

Tonight I made a butternut squash and goats cheese risotto. Comfort food that is also gorgeously, and appropriately bright orange. Here is my recipe.

Butternut squash and goats' cheese risotto

  • 1 small butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and chopped into bite sized chunks
  • 1 small onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 small goats' cheese
  • 850ml chicken stock (or even better, 100ml white wine plus 750ml stock)
  • 200g risotto rice
  • generous pinch of thyme
  • pinch of black pepper

Pour a slug of olive oil into a large heavy pan and put over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook for a couple of minutes until the onion is starting to soften. Add the chopped squash and give everything a good stir. Cook for a further two minutes until the squash becomes even more vivid and starts to soften around the edges. Tip in the rice, pepper and thyme and stir once again so that the rice is thoroughly coated in the oil.

Add the stock, a little at a time, stirring all the while. Add more stock whenever it looks dry. After about 20 minutes stirring start checking the rice for 'doneness'. It should be chewy but not chalky.


When the rice is done, remove the pan from the heat, crumble over the goats cheese and give everythig a final stir before serving.


I haven't photoshopped the picture of the toad at the top - the hens are just laying eggs with bright yellow yolks at the moment!

Saturday, 3 November 2007


A sentence on the Pea Soup blog yesterday really resonated with me. Suse was saying that how after two years of blogging she was starting to "look at things from a photographer's perspective". I think I might be just starting to do this a little too.

My favourite things to photograph:

  • flowers
  • trees
  • blue sky
  • food
  • fabric
  • shadows
  • my home

The photography part of blogging is now one of the most enjoyable parts for me. I carry my camera everywhere and am getting less shy about whipping it out of my handbag and taking some photos when I see something funny, beautiful or interesting. I think I am also getting better at composing and taking photos. I have got to the stage now where I want to find out what all those strange settings on the camera's sub-menus are all about.

I am starting to learn some dos and don'ts about photography too:

  • you can have too many photographs of geraniums after all
  • light is very important
  • don't bother getting children to pose for you - you get better pictures when they don't know they are being photographed.
  • ask before you photograph a market stall or a shop display.
  • there are resources online to make photography more fun and more creative.

My favourite online photography resources are:

  • flickr - an online photo store where you can display and share your pictures.
  • Moo - a print shop where you can make gorgeous stickers and cards from your photos. I have ordered a couple of sticker books from them and am completely in love with their products.
  • Photobox - top quality photo printing and next day delivery. Awesome.

But the biggest lesson I have learnt from photographing everything I possibly could over the past six months is just how difficult it is to not nag people into looking at your pictures. I am now the online equivalent of one of those tedious people who foists photograph albums full of baby pictures and photos of their building works on you when you go round for dinner.

Here are some I took yesterday - feel free to go and admire yet more on flickr!