Thursday, 30 August 2012

Sweet orange dishwasher powder

Remember trying to pat your head, rub your tummy and stamp your feet at the same time? If you master one at a time, it's much easier to attempt the next thing. If you try it all at once, it all falls apart.

That's how I feel about running a home. I want to make my own sourdough so we can start getting away from yeasted breads. I want to look into sourcing proper grass-fed meats. I want to make yoghurt and cream cheese.

But I can't do it all at once. It isn't just a question of making something or finding out about it. It's a process. It's about getting into the habit of doing all these things so they become part of the head-patting, tummy-rubbing, feet-stamping ritual and you don't notice it. 

When I started making bread a few years ago, it felt like an effort. And it was until I found my groove. I tried a few breadmakers, then I invested in a Thermomix and I now mill my own flour. Making bread happens as naturally as brushing my teeth. It's a habit and I just do it. 

Thoughts of sourcing organic fruit and vegetables consumed me for months. Then I tackled it head-on and made a habit of driving into the country with Kian every Monday afternoon to the local co-op. I don't have to think about fruit and veg anymore.

So now I'm tackling other niggles. I mentioned laundry detergent once, but it doesn't niggle me as much as dishwasher powder. The conventional powders are full of chemicals, and the so-called green tablets are pricey.

I spotted a tub of borax recently and I started thinking about making my own (domestic borax is a naturally occurring mild alkali that cuts grease, absorbs odours and leaves everything glistening.)

I mixed up a batch this morning. A cup of borax, a cup of bicarb, a quarter cup of salt and a quarter cup of citric acid. I had a bottle of sweet orange essential oil in my bathroom cabinet, so I added 20-30 drops into the mix and gave it all a good shake.

It's easy to make, the dishes came out clean, I don't have to worry about poisoning my family anymore and we save a packet. I won't bore you with all the figures I worked out this morning, but it works out exactly half the price per kg compared with the main brand of powder and almost five times cheaper than the 'green' tablets on offer – although I didn't factor in the oil. It would still be cheaper.

Oh, and white vinegar works a treat as a rinse aid.

It hits home more and more every day: we don't need most of the stuff they're trying to sell us out there.

So, are you going to try it? What would you like to make a habit of? Can you pat your head, rub your tummy and brush the kids' teeth all at once?

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Making our own compost

I want to spend every spare minute I have in the garden right now. The light is beautiful and it's not too hot. Yet.

I always get distracted from what I'm supposed to be doing. This morning was no different. I took my camera down and took a few pictures.

1. Our first snow peas are ready.
2. My little experiment with nasturtiums. We used to grow nasturtiums in England to eat, but right now I want them as a companion plant. Aphids love nasturtiums, so the plan is they'll love my cabbages and broccoli a little less. The thing is I can't get hold of nasturtium seeds through my plant man, so I went for a little walk and took some cuttings. They sat in water in the kitchen for a couple of weeks until I noticed some roots. Luca and I are after plenty of brilliant orange flowers so I stuck them in the poorest soil I could find near the brassica beds (nasturtiums don't like rich soil; you get more flowers if you hold back on the fertiliser and compost). Fingers crossed.
3. I'd actually forgotten I planted cauliflower. I got quite a surprise when I poked through some leaves and found this creamy white head.
4. A bed all ready for this season's crop of tomatoes and basil. It had sunk down a fair bit through the winter, so I followed the same no-dig garden method and topped with alternating layers of carbon (hay, cardboard) and nitrogen (mushroom compost, veggie scraps, lawn clippings).
5. Our first homegrown broccoli. Lovely but not quite the tight heads I was hoping for. Or does that not matter? And does anyone know why it's all going to flower so quickly?
6. Tomato seedlings in.

Then I got stuck into the one thing I've been looking forward to for weeks. Filling a compost bin to make soil. Number one compost bin is already full and takes the odd bucket of scraps from the kitchen but it's time to start another one.

Making compost is more than throwing in kitchen scraps at the bottom of an empty bin with the occasional bit of cardboard and grass (just because they can go in) and hoping for magic one day. We composted this way for years and abracadabra all we got was slime. With broken egg shell.

I've learnt there's a little bit of science. Much like no-dig gardening.  

I'm not exactly sure why I love filling a compost bin. Is it because I like adding a bit of this and a bit of that, put a lid on and leave the rest to nature? Is it because I find it incredibly satisfying to put household waste (newspapers, office paper, vegetable peelings, ahem urine*) to really good use? Is it the thrill of making something else other than food from scratch and saving a bit more money?

Probably all of the above.

The boys shredded paper. I filled buckets with water and a dash of molasses (blackstrap molasses does wonders for the micro-organisms, which help break everything down, and gets all the worms rushing in).
We filled the bin with different layers of carbon and nitrogen including some roadside alpaca poo and store-bought chicken manure, and finished it with a layer of molasses-soaked hay.

It'll sink down in a few days leaving us room to add our scraps.

Then abracadabra we'll have homemade compost. Very soon.

Congratulations to Libby who wins Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion.

* Graeme often 'waters' the garden when he gets in from work. You know, when it's dark and no one can see. He walks through the door and announces he's given the beds a good dose of nitrogen. He'll be doing the same to the compost bins as long as I remind him. Seriously, if you garden, urine is a valuable resource.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Spiced apple turnovers

I've been putting off writing about my spiced apple turnovers for a while, thinking there was still some chilly weather to come before the season change.

But, oh my, I blinked and spring came and went. It's summer out there today. The boys went out this morning in shorts and t-shirts and a lick of sunscreen. (Though I'm still in jeans... I wonder if there are any other legs mums out there caught out by the sudden change in weather.)

The hot wind is blowing a gale through the house. It has the feel of sultry summers in Egypt. Yesterday, which was just as warm, I took my brother for an ocean walk along the rocks. The air was different, though. It took me back to Greece and bowls of calamari. I was in the mood for marinated anchovies. Sharp feta. Taramasalata (the real thing, not that pink goo).

Anyway, back to turnovers. I made these when Graeme and I fancied something sweet – I hardly ever make dessert, though I don't blame you for thinking my food consists of nothing but pastry, sugar and butter. See... that's the trouble with blogging. I'm only showing you the good pics, and it just so happens my camera has a sweet tooth. It doesn't seem to like the big salads I make or the khaki green smoothies. I'm quite certain it won't like the chickpea and coriander burgers we're having for dinner tonight.

Spiced apple turnovers*. A bit like making a quick apple pie. Except better. It's apple strudel. All that sharp fruitiness and aromatic spice.

Summer or not, these are good to make. In fact, they're just the thing to take cold on a picnic.

Now, does anyone know where I can find some smoked cod's roe (or the equivalent) to make me some taramasalata?

P.S. One day left to win this cookery tome.

*Spiced apple turnovers:

375g all-butter pre-rolled puff pastry
1 egg, beaten

For the filling:
4 apples, peeled, cored and cut into small chunks
4 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp sultanas or currants (or a mixture)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice

Put the apple chunks in a pan with the sugar and dried fruit. Add 3 tbsp of water and cook over a medium heat for 5 mins, stirring occasionally, until they soften. Add the spices and cook for 2-3 mins – add a little more water if needed – until the apples are pulpy. Leave to cool. Preheat the oven to 200C. Divide the pastry into 4 pieces and roll out quite thinly to roughly 12-15cm in diameter. Brush the edges with beaten egg, then divide the apple between the pastries. Fold the dough over the filling, and seal the edges. Transfer the pastries to baking sheets lined with baking paper, brush carefully with more beaten egg and cut a steam hole in each. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. They call for hot eggy custard, but a thick dusting of icing sugar will do just nicely.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Right up to the moon

Usually when the boys are eating their dinner I look out and realise the washing is still outside. Do I bring it in damp or do I leave it out till the morning? There were three loads out there tonight, so I didn't risk it.

I donned my peg apron and I stepped outside. I was expecting chilly, but the air was warm and the night sky was beautiful.

The boys joined me and played on the decking while I unpegged.

Look at the moon, Mummy.

And those three stars. They look like a triangle.

It never looks like this in the city, Mummy.

It sounded so lovely coming from his lips that I asked him to repeat that last one. 

I vaguely remember saying something like this to Luca a very long time ago. It always amazes me the way he stores things away.

As I attempted to shut the bathroom door and have a quiet pee, he sneaked in and we played 'I love you right up to the...'.

But I love you right up to the moon. And to the stars. And across the sea. And the faraway land. And right to Grandma's house.

I could have stayed out there for hours. It was warm enough to sit out with a glass of wine, but not hot enough for all the bugs to come out and play. 

Now to fold those three loads...

Only a few more days left on this giveaway...

Friday, 17 August 2012

Grateful for little surprises

I woke up with a spring in my step today. The strawberries are turning red. I've got enough kale to have juice every day and I'm excited about getting one of my beds ready for tomatoes and basil.

It's Friday and Graeme's working from home. To give him a little peace and quiet, the three of us spent a very blustery morning on the sand, driving first to buy some chicken poo and poke little hands at a rabbit for sale. (Yes, Luca, I know Mummy bought a fabulous rabbit hutch for next to nothing in a garage sale, but this rabbit's not coming home with us. Not today.)

Usually, when we go out, the cat-and-dog antics come with us. But not today. There was no fighting over the biggest bucket or the spade with the better handle. Kian filled and Luca picked clusters of weeds and gave them a new home. Look at my collection, he said.

They walked along walls and jumped, and said hello to passing strangers. Sydney scavenged like she does. When it was time to come home, I prepared myself for all the fuss. There was none. Was it because Daddy was home?

Then I took delivery of some mushroom compost and chatted with the mushroom grower on my driveway. We talked about my broccoli and he told me how to give the mandarin tree a bit of love and attention. 

It wasn't just the fact I've now got everything I need to layer my no-dig garden bed, but it was how the compost had mushrooms sprouting all over it. I rushed upstairs to show the boys what came with the compost. The reaction I got was great, but they're still mushrooms.  

Oh well. Luca picked thyme for me and I made mushrooms on toast for my lunch and sat down properly with a knife and fork. (Another little surprise given I usually wolf something down as I ferry food and drink to the table and mop drinks off the floor.) 

Maybe everyone's in good form because my brother arrives on Sunday. We see parents, brothers and sisters once a year usually, but I haven't seen my brother in two years. So he's never actually met Kian. I can't wait.

I'm joining other lovely grateful people at Maxabella loves.

Did you know I'm giving away a cookery book?

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Stephanie Alexander: a book giveaway

I was too late getting to the food co-op this week. Sweet potatoes had all but gone – pretty much the only vegetable my little cuddlebug will eat. 

So Luca helped me pile in what was left of the parsnips.

While they napped yesterday, I decided on Stephanie Alexander's parsnip croquettes*. Cooked till tender, then fried in a little butter and cumin, mashed with egg yolk and rolled in wholemeal breadcrumbs, they were sweet, crisp and they had me wishing I bought more parsnips.

Sadly, though, Kian made it quite clear that roasted sweet potato is still his favourite thing to eat. 

I've had The Cook's Companion ever since it was published. It's one of those timeless books with recipes for everything, from bug meat coconut curry and lemon risotto to lamb shanks and popcorn.

The funny thing is I laid my hands on another copy a few weeks ago. The cover is different and infinitely more charming than the one I have, so I couldn't resist. 

It would make the perfect present so I'm giving it away. To say thank you for all the lovely comments lately. Just leave me a comment if you'd like to win this magnificent tome. 

Do you collect cookery books? What about ones you already have – or is that just me? 

Update: Congratulations Libby!

Parsnip croquettes from The Cook's Companion

900g parsnips, peeled and trimmed
1 tsp ground cumin
2 eggs, separated
1 tbsp chickpea flour (I used plain flour)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
50g fresh wholemeal breadcrumbs
olive oil

Cut parsnips into chunks. Boil until tender, then drain well. Melt 50g butter, then add cumin and sweat for 1-2 mins. Mash parsnip and add egg yolks. Sift in flour (I didn't bother!) and season. Mix thoroughly (there shouldn't be any lumps, but guess what? Mine did) and chill for 1 hour (I chilled for 20 mins). Lightly whisk egg whites. Spread breadcrumbs on a plate. Rolls spoonfuls of parsnip mixture into sausage shapes or flattish cakes. Dip first in egg white and then in crumbs and chill until needed (or don't chill if you have hungry children to feed). Fry in butter and oil until crisp and brown.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Little moments

Ducks on a windy day


Flour-tortillas-cum-flaky-flatbreads for lunch

Transforming a side-of-the-road find into a play kitchen with 'dadda'

Swinging at home

Thank God for little moments.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Banoffee pie

I love banoffee pie. I don't think I've had banoffee since we left England in 2009. It's not that I like it any more than chocolate cake (any cake), apple pie or a good cheesecake. It's just that it has its place. It's the textures. The banana and the toffee. That crumb.

In England, it was slightly easier to make given that you could buy a jar of dulce de leche from a supermarket shelf. It was on my list of things I missed from home. I would eat the Argentine toffee spread straight from the jar, spoonful after spoonful. I'm not actually sure I made any banoffee with it.

I've been thinking about making this definitive pud of the 1990s for a while now. Wednesday was the day.

I had prepared myself all week for the fact I was going to be boiling condensed milk in the can. This is how you make the toffee in a banoffee – or so I thought.

I didn't need a recipe for banoffee – it is, after all, buttery crushed biscuit, toffee, banana and whipped cream (rich enough for you?) – but I definitely needed to know the details of safely boiling sweet milk in a can. I've heard horror stories, you see.

I stood in front of my cookery books (sadly, not the hundreds that I once had before we moved) and I pulled out Tom Norrington-Davies. A food writer and co-owner/head chef of Great Queen Street in London, but I wouldn't use the word chef for Tom. His writing and food is more than that. He's a cook. A proper cook. (Just checked his twitter account and he calls himself Chief Cook. Much better.)

Anyway, his is the only book I have with a recipe for banoffee pie.* I learnt that banoffee pie is actually an English dessert, not an American concoction. The other revelation was that he makes the toffee without boiling any cans. You just heat butter and sugar together, then add golden syrup and condensed milk.

Easy. And you really do end up with toffee in seconds. It's so quick that I overdid it and my first batch ended up more like thick fudge with burnt sugary bits. It didn't go to waste (by which I mean.... Wait. You know what I mean.)

I spent the day assembling (banoffee isn't really cooking or baking; it's an assembly job*) and I snapped away with my camera. 

I ended up having banoffee for lunch and just when I thought I couldn't have any more of those wonderful textures, I'd wait a bit and have a bit more.

When the boys came home, I was ready for all those moments that happen so often here. 

Whenever things got too much for me, in true Nigella style, I'd open the fridge door and sneak in a mouthful. I did it often that evening. And do you know what? I didn't lose my patience once with them. Knowing I had this in the fridge was all I needed.

So I may have just cracked it. The parenting thing, I mean. If I have something in the fridge – pie, cake, anything – that's just sitting there with a spoon at the ready so I can dive in whenever they get too tough to handle, I think the boys will turn out just fine.

Believe it or not, I have had enough banoffee pie for another three years. But there was a little left over, and Luca was clever enough to work out there was something in that fridge with the door opening that much over the last 48 hours.

He had a little after dinner tonight. So did Kian. As Graeme fed him a mouthful or two of crushed biscuit, Kian did that thing that Luca used to do as a baby, just before a feed. That desperate mouth-open rooting thing just as I'd undo my bra. The most adorable thing and I'd almost forgotten what it looked like.

But I was reminded tonight when my little sweet-toothed cuddlebug did it. Not for my milk. No.

He was rooting for butter and sugar.

I don't blame him. Especially when he's known a lifetime of plain yoghurt and fruit for dessert. Will he ever eat yoghurt and fruit again, I wonder?

* Recipe: Melt 50g butter and mix into 250g crushed digestive biscuits. Line the base of a Pyrex dish or cake tin with the biscuit base and set aside. For the toffee, heat very gently 125g butter and 100g sugar. When the sugar has dissolved, stir in 2 tbsp golden syrup and 200g condensed milk (about half a can). Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for 3-4 mins, stirring constantly, until thick and toffee-coloured. When cooled slightly, pour it onto the biscuit base. Chill for at least 1 hour. Arrange 3 sliced bananas over the toffee. Whip 300ml double cream to soft peaks with 1 tsp honey and use it to top the pie. Adding the honey will not make the cream very sweet, but it makes it harder to over whip it (an old wives' tale that always seems to work). You can serve with chocolate shavings on top. The original recipe from Eastbourne, England uses coffee powder. From Just Like Mother Used to Make.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Why isn't parenting more obvious?

There's plenty about being a parent that comes naturally to me.

I instinctively know what to feed them. I know that good food has a big part to play in their childhood, just as it did mine.

I know to love them, to give them plenty of cuddles and to listen.

I know to read to them every day and nurture their love of books.

I know that less will always reward them with more.

As they've grown, I instinctively know that a slower, longer childhood is right for them. And that they should spend time in the garden watching food grow.

I'm very grateful to have instincts like these. No matter what anyone says or what I see, I am never swayed. It's so comforting to have that instinctive backing. To know what is right.

What doesn't come naturally to me, though, is huge and fills me with guilt. Every. Single. Day.

I don't know how to deal with the fighting, the mood swings, the episodes of rage. Instead of waiting for calm to creep back in, for them to find their centre, then talking about it sensibly, I get sucked in and swept along.

I've been reading how sibling conflict is an opportunity for communication. But I'm failing miserably. (Unless raising my voice counts as communication?)

If it was a four-year-old Kian clashing with Kian as he is now, I imagine I wouldn't get so caught up. Kian is more resilient and he moves on quite quickly. I imagine I might even let them sort it out for themselves. But it always feels so much deeper with Luca. Uncontrollable. Intense. The distress lingers and it affects everything. It's the highly sensitive thing that I still know very little about.

This morning, as I baked cheese and chive muffins to fill their lunch boxes, I realised that instead of feeling proud and grateful that it's easy for me to wake up and rustle up something delicious for their lunch, I felt niggled that I'm only really doing part of my job.

Filling their tummies and reading to them and loving them is only really part of the job. It's the easy part. It's easy to bake and cook from scratch (for me, anyway). It's easy to read. It's easy to cuddle and be close. Because it's calm and enjoyable. It's easy to parent when you've got calm and enjoyable.

It's hard when everyone is overwhelmed and angry, in a struggle. I wish I could better tune in and know exactly what their needs are and how to talk and nurture them back. That's the hard part and I wish it were more obvious.


I wish it were more obvious: tuning into my child and being able to connect and work out what they really need on an emotional level and being able to think 'you're acting this way because..., so all I need to do is this', and know in my heart of hearts that I'm doing a great job.

I know, as parents, we're human too, carrying all sorts of issues that still need resolving. I accept that, and I know nothing is ever perfect, but I'd like to feel – just once – like I can pat myself on the back.

I find myself wondering if it'll all turn out OK. In spite of all this stuff that isn't obvious to me.
What was obvious to me today, though, was I needed music and I needed to make banoffee pie. So I danced in the kitchen to Michael Bublé, and when the boys came home, we danced some more.... (before several moments like the kind I describe above).

And now, I have a bowl of buttery, biscuity, sticky and creamy. Where it's going to end up is very very obvious.*

Do you struggle with the emotional stuff too as a parent? Do you have one child you always worry about? Do you wish more of parenting was instinctive so that we didn't have to spend our spare time reading advice?**

I'll post the banoffee recipe tomorrow.

** Speaking of which, I have a copy of Simplicity Parenting here from the library thanks to a mention from Greer. But it's been sitting on the coffee table for a week. Next to Tessa Kiros' Apples for Jam. Guess which one seems to fall into my lap first. 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Thursday Garden Journal

Lots of questions this week. This is the answer to one of them today. A perfect reminder of why I started this blog. It's a journal. A special journal that frees it all up, gets it all out and lifts me when I'm feeling a bit bleak.

I just look at that dandelion globe and I'm amazed how much it actually does lift me.

(I'm starting to think a bit more about my photos. Graeme's always giving me tips, but why is it we don't listen to the ones closest to us? I had Jodi's 'rule of thirds' in mind when I took this picture. 'That's what I've been telling you'... Sorry honey. I'll try and listen to you more.)

I love it. Regardless of whether I've nailed the thirds thing. Have I?

Tonight, I made pizza. I picked watercress, spinach, oak leaf lettuce and cos for a salad. This is where it all comes from.

Mandarins. Some rotting. Some rock hard.

Hydrangea. Tormenting.

 Celery. Fingers crossed.

A side-of-the-road basket. Beetroot seedlings.

Luca's peas and snowpeas. String and bamboo.

Strawberry flowers. Cobweb.

Mint for me. Chilli for Graeme.

Leeks slowly fattening up. Two wheelbarrows. I say not enough. 
Someone says two wheelbarrows too much.