Thursday 28 June 2007

Dreaming of strawberries

I am a little obsessed with strawberries at the moment. For the last four weeks I have been waiting for one of my days off to coincide with some dry weather so that I could go back to the PYO at Enfield and get some more strawberries.

Strawberries are so beautiful. Their garish colour is the classic definition of red. Their smell is perfumed and heady. And the taste...oh, my goodness fresh strawberries really do taste amazing!
I picked three overflowing punnets of strawberries this morning and I now have to do something with them quickly before they go off. So here is my list of good things to do with a kitchen full of ripe strawberries:
  • Eat them. Just as they are. Straight from the plant. This is absolutely the best thing you can do with them.
  • Make them into strawberry sauce. Put three or four large handfuls of hulled strawberries into a blender together with 2 tablespoons hot water and 2 tablespoons icing sugar. Whizz to a sauce. This freezes really well.
  • Turn them into jam.
  • Use them as a topping for a cheesecake.
  • Drop them into a glass of champagne. Drink the champagne and then fish out the strawberries in a slightly giggly, drunken fashion and eat them. You will probably make a mess of that pretty summery top you are wearing.
  • Mash a bowlful up with a fork. Whip a tub of double cream so that it stands in soft peaks. Then fold the strawberries into the cream to make a strawberry fool.
  • When you've really had your fill of strawberries and can't face eating any more, give one to four hungry hens and watch it disappear in 2 seconds flat. Then laugh as the hens start jumping up and down with excitement and squawking to demand more.

Tuesday 26 June 2007

Hair pins

For the last two weeks I have been tyrannised by somebody else's list. The list read as follows....

Please remember to bring with you to the exam:
  • two hair nets (matching hair colour)
  • hair elastics (neutral colours please)
  • plenty of HAIR PINS (we need nearly a packet per child)
  • hair grips
  • hair spray
  • hair gel
  • a new hair brush



This was all for O's first ballet exam. I had no idea when I smiled politely at the nice lady with lovely posture that this was where it would end up.

So off I went down Wanstead High Street looking for essential hair pins and hair nets that matched a 4 year old's hair colour. All was available (at a price...the chemist just smiled knowingly at me and said 'ballet exam then?' when I went to pay) except for the hairpins. Apparently Wanstead sells out of hairpins each term when the ballet exams are being held.

But I found some in the end, and today O spent an eye-watering hour and a half having her hair done by her teachers ready for the exam. When I picked her up at the end of the exam, I could smell the hair spray before I saw her.

Tonight we carefully took out the precious hair pins and I am keeping them safe for the next time.

Monday 25 June 2007

A hen morality tale

G pointed out last week that "a chicken run is just like a reality TV show". He's right. It is a whole little world of dysfunctional relationships, people showing off, interpersonal dynamics, bullying, cliques and gossipping. Our eglu and run over the past few months has been much more interesting to watch than Big Brother or The Apprentice.

We have four hens: Betsy, Maud, Queenie and Daisy. Betsy, since the moment she arrived, has always been the one in charge. You can see her in this top picture: big, brown and bossy. At first the other three sensibly stayed out of her way and there were few problems but over time Betsy's bossiness evolved into bullying and she started pulling the others' feathers out as a way of asserting her dominance.

Here is my list of everything I tried to change Betsy's behaviour. I think even Supernanny would have struggled with this one.
  • I put a clip on her beak (you can see this in the picture if you look closely), but she learnt how to pull feathers out with it on (though the feathers did get caught in the clip and she could no longer feign innocence when I came outside looking cross).
  • I hung CDs in the run to give her something exciting and glittery to peck at, but she isn't a glittery, sparkly kind of a hen.
  • I hung lettuces and cabbages in the run to give her something else to peck at, but she ate them all and wouldn't let the others anywhere near, then got the runs from eating too much green stuff.
  • I sprayed tea-tree oil on the others' feathers, but it seems Betsy loves the taste of tea-tree oil.
  • I used my most stern voice to tell her off (getting desperate by this time), but she ignored me.

When Queenie had a bald patch on her back and both Daisy and Maud had bald patches on their necks I decided I'd really had enough and it was time for some desperate measures. Someone advised me that I should take Betsy out of the run and keep her in a smaller cage for two weeks, then reintroduce her to the others. The theory behind this is that:

  • Not having Betsy in the run for a couple of weeks would give the others a chance to grow some new feathers and get their confidence back.
  • Hens are notoriously mean to new additions to the flock; they will peck and squawk at the newcomer so that it goes to the bottom of the pecking order. When I reintroduced Betsy hopefully the others would stand up to her and she would no longer be so dominant.

I was very sceptical when I heard all this; it sounded a little too much like hen psychology, but I gave it a go because I couldn't think of what else to try. For two weeks we kept Betsy in a small cage. I felt so cruel, even though she could stand up & move around and carried on laying, she really didn't have much room. Queenie, Daisy & Maud thought this was marvellous. They luxuriated in huge dust-baths without having their feathers pulled. They ate what they wanted, when they wanted. They slept where they wanted in the eglu at night. I started to feel cruel for subjecting them to Betsy's bullying for so long.

Then this past weekend, I put Betsy back into the run. And amazingly, her stint in solitary confinement seems to have done her some good. She stood at one end of the run, looking rather nervous, until I fed them all. She followed the others to the corn and was suddenly SHOUTED at by Daisy, pecked swiftly on the head and told to get to the bottom of the pecking order. And even more amazingly, she meekly did so.

There is now a new harmony in the run. Daisy is in charge (and you can see her to the right - looking very wise), but she is a kinder leader than Betsy was and just has to shout occasionally. Queenie and Maud are continuing with their new routine of dust-baths every morning and they usually let Betsy join them.

Happy hens!

Saturday 23 June 2007

Domestic colour

Going to the pub last night with my friend Gill left me with two things. The first was an almighty hangover, and the second was some thoughts on colour.

Feeling a little under the weather was the perfect excuse to stay at home and be domesticated this morning. The smell of home-baked bread would cheer anyone up and I pottered around the house making things look nice and admiring the colours around me. So here is a list of all the colourful things I found in my hungover world today.

First thing this morning I went to visit a beguiling little shop in Roding Valley called Just Between Friends. It sells everything you could possibly need for quilting, patchwork and embroidery. O and I admired all the beautiful handmade quilts hanging up and prowled around the shop stroking bolts of fabric. I was surprisingly restrained and came away with just two packets of patchwork squares and some buttons and thread. This evening I turned some of my haul into appliqued tops for C & O.

After dragging O round the shops it seemed the only fair thing to do would be to bake cakes with her, so we made these uplifting cupcakes. The recipe is a Nigella one, and very quick. Neither small people nor grown ups with hangovers will loose patience with the recipe before it is finished (and then hangovers and 4-year-old whining can be dramatically soothed by 'testing' some of the finished cupcakes.)

Then to complete a mellow morning O disappeared to play with her toys and I did some dusting and tidying around the house. Even housework need not be dull with funky printed dusters and rainbow papers and pens to write lists on....

Tuesday 19 June 2007

A list heroine of mine

This post is in honour of another great list maker - and a heroine of mine - Nigella Lawson. I have all her recipe books and love her honest, slightly scatty, writing voice and the ridiculously large sized portions her recipes give you.

But as well as being a great cook and writer, she is also a list maker. In her most recent book,
Feast, she lists on p.264 her entire cookie cutter collection (and it is a very large collection). Here is what she says about her collection and the publication of her list:

"I have built up something of a collection of cookie-cutters; when anyone I know, however vaguely, goes away I ask them to bring me back a cutter and I'm always on the look out myself. I recently did an inventory of the cutters which I present - pathetically really - as after-dinner entertainment if I've drunk too much. I haven't drunk anything now, but I love my list too much not to present it to you."

I take issue with the word "pathetically" - what is pathetic about proudly showing off your lists? - but I can only applaud her obviously deeply held love of cataloguing and listing.

On her
website you can buy or covet a whole range of gorgeous things for your kitchen, including this very pretty shopping list. She says about it: "Only those who get through life by writing lists will know how crucial these pads and pencils are."

Nigella I salute you.

I'm off to start my own shopping list now.

Monday 18 June 2007

A list to lift my mood

As it is Monday, I've spent all day thinking my blog tonight would be a list called Things That Really Pissed Me Off At Work Today but as I walked out of the office two things lifted my mood. The first thing was plugging in my iPod and listening to a playlist of all the new songs I have bought from iTunes recently.

A mood lifting playlist
  • What goes around.../...comes around by Justin Timberlake - this has the bonus of sounding as if Justin is whispering sweet nothings in your ear, and the sentiment is rather zen and laid-back so perfect for diffusing work rage.
  • Soul Bossa Nova by Quincy Jones - this is upbeat, uplifting and ever so slightly mad. It makes you want to dance along the street.
  • Epoca by The Gotan Project - another song that makes you want to dance. Its a moody tango - satisfyingly aggressive.
  • That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be by Carly Simon - this is a real piece of 70s vocal and guitar. Carly Simon has a beautiful, slightly melancholy voice.
  • Older by George Michael - another melancholy song, but it didn't send me into a Monday depression as it is so well produced and a bit dreamy. Good for when there are seven minutes to wait until the next train and the platform is already full.
  • If There's Any Justice by Lemar - just gorgeous. The song and Lemar.
  • Its a Man's, Man's, Man's World by James Brown - after a day of being the only skirt in a roomful of suits this one really cheered me up. Great saxophone sounds too.
  • Together by William Shatner and Lemonjelly - yes really. But it is fantastic. Weird but fantastic.
  • Stan by Eminem - well, my day wasn't as bad as his.

The other thing that cheered me up was the sun finally breaking through the clouds and shining on my utterly lovely new pair of red shoes.

Friday 15 June 2007

So many eggs

With up to four eggs a day from my hens, I have a good long list of friends, neighbours and relatives who are always happy to be given a box of eggs when I have a surfeit. And another good long list of recipes that use up eggs.

Good egg recipes:
  • Omelettes - mushroom, cheese, herb, leek...they're all good
  • Scrambled eggs
  • A chocolate cake - well any cake uses up eggs, but obviously a chocolate cake is my default
  • Huevos Rancheros - a delicious, Mexican, chilli egg dish
  • Bread
  • Mueringues
  • French toast - a particular favourite with C & O, who are allowed to drown the toast in vast puddles of golden syrup
  • Pancakes - fancy, French ones like doilies or fat American ones studded with blueberries
  • Kedgeree
  • An egg curry
  • Egg mayonnaise sandwiches - and if you make your own mayo it uses up even more eggs
  • Lemon curd

My favourite egg recipe at the moment is a version of scrambled eggs that I adapted from Vicky Bhogal's excellent British Asian cookbook
Cooking Like Mummyji .

Asian Eggs

  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten with a splash of milk
  • 2 spring onions, thinly sliced
  • large pinch of chilli flakes
  • small handful of coriander leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1 tbsp grated mature cheddar cheese
  • 1 toasted pitta bread

Fry the spring onions and chilli flakes gently in a small knob of butter until softened. Tip in the eggs and scramble. At the end, add the coriander and cheese then stuff the mixture into the toasted pitta. Serve with sliced tomato and avocado on the side.

And if you make this for lunch, with eggs laid that morning, it adds a certain feeling of decadence to your midday meal!

Thursday 14 June 2007

I love my tent

I have been reading the Cool Camping Wales and Cool Camping England books this week and they have reminded me of some of the many reasons I love camping. How could you not want to pack up your tent and head for the hills with book covers as gorgeous as these?

I have always loved camping, which is a little odd as my parents loathe it as much as I love it. I never went camping as a child but I did ask for a tent for my birthday one year, when I was about 11. I would set it up in the garden each summer and play in it endlessly. I didn't sleep in it much as the sounds of foxes, hedgehogs, birds and other wildlife prowling around the garden at night was a bit spooky.

When I was at University preparing for my finals I packed up my tent, sleeping bag and books and went to camp by the sea for a week's solitary revision.

And when I found out that G enjoyed camping as much as I did, I knew I was in love. For our very first holiday together, when we had been dating for less than 6 months, we decided to walk part of the Pennine Way in County Durham with backpacks and a tent.

There are many reasons why I love camping:

  • The lack of electricity means we have a much slower pace of life - we all read more books, talk to one another more and just sit around in the sunshine soaking up the atmosphere.

  • I get to visit some of the most beautiful scenery in Britain - I will always want to live in London, but I will also always want to leave it sometimes for the fresh air and peace of the countryside.

  • Camping with friends means that you spend proper time with them - there is time to talk, drink at leisure and make up mad games and stories.

  • I love how everything you need for camping - beds, bags, chairs, food - fits into small, neat, pleasantly coloured packages.

  • I love waking up, lying warm in bed with the cool, fresh air of the new day around me while I drink coffee and look out at the view.
  • I love the feelings of freedom and solitude it gives me.

Most of all, I love how there is always another trip to plan.

Tuesday 12 June 2007

A fish out of water

For someone who doesn't even own a swimsuit, I know an awful lot about swimming. As I write this, G is at his Tuesday evening training session, trying to swim faster (but crucially, with less effort) than everyone else in the pool. I've picked up a few tips from him over the years.

  • The time in seconds it takes you to swim a length in a 25m pool is the time in minutes it would take you to swim a mile - so a 15 second length means if you kept that pace up you could do a 15 minute mile.
  • Its all about the arms - don't worry too much about what your legs are doing.
  • The London Borough of Waltham Forest has just one 33m pool, which is closing this summer. But in 2012 we'll have a 50m - Olympic sized - pool.
  • Anyone who can swim butterfly is a God.
  • There are heated discussions in the swimming fraternity about whether one should look down at the bottom of the pool or forwards to the end of the pool when swimming front crawl.
  • Swimming in a wetsuit makes you more buoyant, and therefore able to swim faster.
  • Swimming in a cold lake in Essex at 6am on a Saturday morning is lovely.
  • To really understand your stroke, get yourself filmed with an underwater camera.
  • Being able to do proper tumble turns does make a real difference to how fast you go.

A wetsuit for triathlons and other open water swims is different from a wetsuit that surfers would wear. It is very close fitting and even comes with a slightly disturbing cap for the colder spring and autumn months, or for swimming in the sea....

G will be competing in his first full distance triathlon of the season this weekend, and the wetsuit will be keeping him buoyant in The Thames at Windsor for the first leg of the race. Even though I won't be there, I'll be thinking of him and hoping he swims like a fish!

Sunday 10 June 2007

Things that go bump in the night

Yesterday I had one of those shockingly bad nights of sleep that the next morning leaves you feeling so drained that you just want to go to back to bed.

Reasons I couldn't sleep:
  • We have a nest of baby birds in the eves, just outside our bedroom window - their scrambling, scratching and squeaking in the middle of the night would keep anyone awake (well, okay, just me)
  • G's phone was beeping at random intervals from an undisclosed location
  • It was so hot and humid in our bedroom
  • Radio 4 was broadcasting programmes worth listening to
  • Saturday night in Leyton is Going Out Night. But everyone is very young and trendy and they go out around midnight, so the street is suddenly full of taxis, teenage girls chatting on their mobiles and doors being slammed (its always very peaceful here on a Sunday morning though....)

I did finally get to sleep as the World Service started on the radio (that would send anyone to sleep frankly). But I was woken far too early this morning by shrieks of terror coming from the hens in the garden - a fox was sitting by their run fishing inside with a paw and gnawing on the door. And then corresponding shrieks of terror coming from C whose bedroom overlooks the garden. G and I grabbed dressing gowns and ran outside to chase away the fox (which then sat in the neighbours garden grinning at me - he just knew he had woken me up, the little sod).

All this made me think of one of my favourite poems, which is itself really a list:

Noises in the night

Why are men so good at sleeping?

Is it just the drink?

While we're tossing, turning, weeping,

Why are they so good at sleeping?

Snoring, whistling, grunting, beeping -

No one else can get a wink.

Why are men so good at sleeping?

Is it just the drink?

That is by Wendy Cope, from her book Serious Concerns which is great at making me laugh when I've had much less sleep than I need.

Saturday 9 June 2007

Lists about the house

I've had such a lazy day today - I haven't even left the house. On a day at home there are of course plenty of things I could be doing (should be doing perhaps). Our house is one big endless lists of jobs....
  • Find out what's causing the smell of damp by the front door
  • Find a builder to re-point the back walls
  • Get the pane of glass in the sitting room door fixed
  • Put wall filler in the holes in Cam's wall that appeared when his shelves fell down
  • Paint the loft hatch (G seems to have a desire to do this for some reason)
  • Buy a new grate for the dining room fireplace
  • Plumb in a water butt
  • Re-plaster, re-paint and re-carpet the whole darn building
But frankly, reading the Saturday papers, listening to my iPod, doing jigsaws with O and drinking endless cups of coffee is much more fun.

I love our house and sometimes doubt I'll ever be able to bring myself to sell it or live somewhere else.
  • It has sash windows
  • The front railings were made for the house from the old Victorian railings of the church at the top of the road
  • The children were born here
  • Our neighbours are lovely
  • It has window ledges deep enough for me to put pots of geraniums on
  • We can have proper fires in the winter.

Tomorrow I shall go out, but tonight I think I will have another glass of cider and sit in my house.

Thursday 7 June 2007

A retro recipe

My absolute favourite lists are recipes. You get two lists in one - the ingredients and also the method!

This recipe is the taste of my childhood. My mother would get this in the oven within half an hour of coming home from work and we would all have it for supper later with new potatoes and green beans. It makes a beautifully light, summery meal.

Ma's Tuna Quiche
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 stick of celery, finely chopped
  • 1 tin of tuna, drained
  • 1/2 tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 5 eggs
  • 120ml milk
  • small handful grated cheese

For the pastry:

  • 200g plain flour
  • 100g fat (I use 50g butter and 50g vegetable shortening eg. Trex)

Preheat the oven to Gas 6.

Make the pastry by rubbing the fat into the flour with your fingertips. When it looks like breadcrumbs, add cold water splash by splash and combine with the blade of a knife until it forms a ball. Wrap in a plastic food bag and put in the fridge.

Fry the onion and celery gently in a little olive oil until soft and translucent. Then tip the onion and celery into a large jug together with the tuna, tomatoes, cheese, eggs and milk. Mix it all together with a fork.

Roll out the chilled pastry and line a flan dish with it. Cover with greaseproof paper and baking beans and bake blind for 15 minutes. Remove the baking beans and paper and return to the oven for a further 5 minutes.

Pull the flan dish slightly out from the oven and pour the jug of eggy filling into the pastry case. Slide back into the oven and bake for about 40 minutes. When it is ready the filling will be firm and a wonderful golden orange colour.

This final photo is a child's portion by the way!

For pudding tonight we had strawberries...O and I went a bit mad at the PYO earlier today...
we will be making jam tomorrow....

Tuesday 5 June 2007

Nice lists, nasty lists

My day at work was full of horrible lists. My 'To Do' list for this week grew longer rather than shorter, I spent over an hour in a meeting explaining my list of reasons for not allowing a new piece of IT development to go live (and it was a long list of reasons!) and my manager came up with a list of very dull objectives for me for the coming six months. Ugh.

Sometimes work does come up with lists that I like. I like looking at lists of currency codes and FX rates - very neat and calming. A reconciliation of transactions that comes back to 0.00 is a rare thing of beauty too.

But the best lists I came across today were after I had left work.

On my tube journey home I listened to a playlist on my iPod. Michael Buble, Nat King Cole, Robbie Williams, Lily Allen, Simon & Garfunkel and Ulrich Schnauss all lifted my mood very well.

Then I've spent a happy evening looking at all the books in my 'To Read' pile (a pile is just a 3D list I reckon!) and picking out which of the books that I've read recently I will send to my friend.

I'm currently reading Wicked! by Jilly Cooper, The Birth House by Ami McKay and the Collins Guide to Digital Photography . The other books in this photo are some that I read while I was away last week.

Give me a book list over a 'To Do' list any day.

Sunday 3 June 2007

How does the garden grow?

My garden is a great source of lists. What to order from the seed catalogues? When to plant? Where to plant?

After an amazing summer of tomatoes last year, I have expanded the selection of vegetables I am growing this year to include:
  • french beans
  • aubergines
  • potatoes
  • lettuces
  • rocket
  • tomatoes
  • courgettes
  • summer squashes
  • spinach
  • strawberries

Already there have been some plant bereavements....The cat next door stomped all over the spinach seedlings so they didn't survive more than a couple of weeks. The summer squashes just keeled over and died one day. I have absolutely no idea why. Last night a fox chewed up one of the growbags housing the courgettes, and snapped three of the six plants off at the base of the stem.

But gardening is always more about the successes than failures for me. The successes instantly make me forget about the frustrations. This weekend we ate the first new potatoes from the garden, and the rocket has been in our lunchtime sandwiches for a few weeks now. This afternoon my sister and I transplanted 30 fragile lettuce plug plants into pots and planted out the tomato seedlings. There isn't much room on our patio now.

I am a more reliable gardener when it comes to geraniums. Geraniums are my most favourite garden flower. I love their mad, clashing colours and great puffs of flowers. The geraniums in pots at the front of the house are enjoying all the sunshine and dazzle me with reds and pinks when I get home in the evenings.

Friday 1 June 2007

Car games

As I have spent nearly seven hours today, in our car, driving the length of the M4 and beyond, my mind has turned to l...o...n...g... car journeys, and what to do on them.

I don't think as a small child I was a particularly good passenger on long car journeys. Until I got a walkman when I was a teenager, I remember endless hot days in the car driving down the length of France: no air-con, sticky seats, kicking my brother, tight seatbelts, eating sweets and everybody moaning. On one very memorable journey, I spent the entire two days down to the Dordogne reading jokes from the Crack A Joke Book to my family (knock knock, who's there? Frank, Frank who? Frankenstein - he, he he!!!!). How my parents didn't abandon me at a service station I do not know.

By contrast today my own two children were so good. Their new iPods were the main reason for their angelic behaviour - worth every last penny. C played endless games on his and O listened to audiobooks.

We also played some great car games, which we found in a very useful little book called I'm Bored by Suzy Barratt and Polly Beard.

So, my list of things which make long car journeys more bearable is this:

  1. Buy your children iPods

  2. Buy yourself an iPod
  3. Only stop at Moto service stations - they have M&S food halls!
  4. Buy nice fruit juices to drink (see point 3)
  5. Persuade boyfriend to drive so that you can read books in the passenger seat
  6. Play some old fashioned parlour games - especially good for traffic jams
  7. Unpack the next morning