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Seedlings, soil and a spot of light toil…

I’m feeling all green-fingered again. I’ve been swept away by a tidal wave of good intention and the recurrent vision of becoming a self-sufficient, kaftan-wearing earth mother who harvests dinner every night from her Kitchen Garden and whose offspring can name every variety of tomato under the sun. Like most fantasies, alas, this is impossibly far from the truth.  The kaftan-wearing bit in particular is just never going to happen.

Still, a well-lived life is one of constant reinvention, as I’m sure someone must have said as it sounds very profound.  Harry and I have duly cracked open the Dorling Kindersley Guide to Gardening for Complete Amateurs, and begun sowing in earnest.  Initially we’ve just planted lettuce, carrots, radishes and salad onions. The DK guide warns me ominously that carrots are plagued by the psila rosae Carrot Fly and must always be planted alongside onions, which will, it promises, have the same effect as Kryptonite on Superman or garlic to Dracula, thus ensuring that the evil weevils keep a flight exclusion zone around our precious harvest.  This is just as well, as I wouldn’t be able to identify a psila rosae if it fell into my gin and tonic.  Especially then, in fact.

I found this rather cool and slightly more macho planter for Harry (below), and once he’d wedged himself into it a couple of times and ascertained that it achieved a max speed of about 2km/hour when pushed along, he was happy to plant it up instead, bashing each tender seedling heavily with the spade for good measure.

And finally, what I’m hoping will be the most verdant and productive of all; this grafted tomato, which the garden centre has led me to believe is the genetic equivalent of Usain Bolt and will deliver such a bountiful harvest that even the sight of a tomato, come September, will make us feel a little queasy.

It must deliver on its promise, as I have a title to uphold; last year my very undersized efforts scooped the ‘Most Artistic Tomato’ prize in my friend’s annual Tomato Festival (a deliciously drunken garden party where tomatoes feature loosely, and other equally tenuous categories include ‘Best shop-bought tomato’ and ‘Best wine to drink with tomatoes’..).  I strung a handful of dwarf cherry toms together to form a fetching necklace and earring set which I duly wore (below); it did the trick – and works a treat when you get hungry and the canapés are far away – but I think that substance is going to have to trump style this year if I am to retain my title…

And in closing; a gratuitous montage of some of the most distracting spring blooms in the rest of the garden.  One of our great pastimes (having moved into our house in the depths of winter) is watching to see what bursts into bud, then flower, as the weather turns.  All helpful advice on identifying and naming the varieties of beauties below is more than welcome…

The Great Sunflower Race

I have found a new nemesis. He’s called Hans Peter Schiffer, and I’ve never met him. ‘Who??’ I hear you cry. WELL, Herr Schiffer may be a benign, helpful German flight attendant by day, but apparently in his spare time has somehow managed to seize the World Record for the tallest sunflower ever grown, a whopping 8.03m. Lordy. Who knew that the very hands used to highlight emergency exits and demonstrate seatbelt positioning could produce such unfettered glory in the garden?  Eight metres of it no less.  So, competitive juices in full flow, we’ve decided to start a new family tradition; the Great Sunflower Race.

Initially thinking we would just have a Mummy / Daddy / Harry race, we carefully chose 3 pots to sow our seeds, hoping that a short spell indoors would give us a head-start come warmer weather and planting out.  Amidst much jostling and inter-marital suspicion we opted to label the pots with chalkboard paint and pen to ensure no crafty tag swapping once the growing began in earnest.  (Damnit; my master-plan thwarted before germination even occurs…)

We took to the garden for some cavalier tossing of compost; very little landed in the pots themselves but the lawn will, I’m sure, benefit from all the additional nutrients it received.

Sunflower seeds are amongst the most reliable of all so can be sown just one to a pot with confidence.  Or so says the packet.  We’ll see….

With a nearly-full pack of seeds leftover, we decided to ask friends and family to join in the race, so carefully packaged up a sprinkle of seeds into little vellum envelopes (below) and issued the challenge.  Some packets were collected by Harry’s friends at our egg-hunt this weekend, the rest will be mailed to Grandparents and other feverishly keen competitors in the week ahead…

So, without further ado, let the Great Sunflower Race commence!

p.s. Global entries welcome… the Big Measure will take place in July, just as soon as my entry is towering magnificently at an impossible peak (and there I go again; ambition completely outstripping skillset…)

Pasta la Vista, baby!

Carbs are big in our household, as anyone who knows us will attest. Given that my husband declares the potato to be his favourite vegetable, and I would request a toasting fork and crusty loaf if given notice of being stranded on a desert island, it was inevitable that Harry was going to feel a strong gravitational pull towards all things starchy. Whilst I’m secretly proud of the fact that he freely eats vegetables and would for ages misidentify any tree in a picture book as being ‘a piece of broccoli’ (no idea why; it’s unlikely, frankly, that he made this connection at home…), it’s also true that if you ask him what he’d like to do next, the statistically most probable answer at any given time is ‘eat spaghetti’.

So this weekend we whipped out our shiny new pasta machine that was the gift-of-the-year in Christmas 2010, rather like the bread machines that everyone gave and received 10yrs earlier.  A guilty confession; our machine is actually a present I bought for someone else and decided to keep because it looked so enticing; instead, they received a selection of novels and I no doubt received a great dollop of bad karma that will ensure all the pasta I make with it is cursed.  We’ll soon find out.  My cookbooks and the web are full of delicious recipes for homemade pasta involving herbs, different flours and semolina, et al, but we plumped for the simplest possible concoction (below), and got stuck in.  As you can see, this is one of those cookfests where it’s all about the journey, not the end result…

Take your 3 ingredients, create a volcano-like pile of the salted flour on your worktop, and pour the lightly beaten egg mixture into the middle.  Watch as the flour sides collapse and spend several minutes chasing egg around the table (you can see why small boys love this bit).

Mix the ingredients together.  Taste periodically if you really can’t resist.  Try not to touch anything else at all.  Once  a dough forms, knead for about 10 minutes.  Abandon your mother after 2 minutes and find something more interesting to do instead.  Do this quietly, dragging your sticky hands along the wall as you amble towards the toy box.

Hard work done, leave the dough to settle.

Roll out with a rolling pin until about 1cm thick, and then start to feed it through your pasta machine.  Of course, it’s perfectly possible to do this with a rolling pin alone and a lot of elbow grease and persistence.

Once you’ve got a long, thin piece of dough about 3mm thick, feed it through the slicer bit to create your chosen shape; we opted for tagliatelle, and draped it over a (clean!) broom handle to keep the strands separate whilst we worked on the rest of the dough.  As you can see, this offered an impossible temptation for a 2yr old and his fire engine, so our pasta curtain took a bit of a beating at this point.

Once you’ve finished making the tagliatelle, curl each strand into a loose ball and save till you’re ready to cook (the sooner the better).  We tossed ours gaily into a pan of boiling water and hastily gathered spoons, napkins and a large bowl each before stirring in some tomato sauce and basil. And you know, here’s the thing; despite starting with gusto (note the two forks used for speed, below), Harry quickly slowed to a halt and carefully extracted a piece of rubbery, part-chewed pasta from his mouth, then paused and asked oh-so-casually; ‘Maybe we can have Cheerios for tea instead, mummy?’ .  Karma. I knew it…

Channeling Martha with a spot of dip ‘n dye

I was lying on the sofa the other day, idly trying to choose which of the few remaining chocolate Mini Eggs to eat first; should it be the pastel pink one, or the soft purpley-blue one? (Note the deliberate use of ‘first’ here; it was clearly never going to be a trade-off).  It reminded me that Easter is just around the corner and that Martha Stewart is no doubt at this very moment engaged in vigorous preparations for her extensive annual Easter home-makeover.  I prefer a rather more minimalist approach myself, saving the creative double-barrels for Christmas, but the one thing I do love doing is dip-dyeing eggs to make a simple centrepiece, or even a colourful addition to picnics when the weather allows.

The one big drawback here in the UK is the distinct lack of white eggs, unlike in the US where white eggs are the norm.  Apparently sometime back in the 60s, the UK government announced that brown eggs are better for you, and farmers and the general public immediately switched allegiance and the white hen egg was quite literally bred out of circulation.  The health-benefits story turned out to be entirely untrue, but brown eggs are now the norm and so for this I used white duck eggs, from Prince Charles’s very own Royal farms, and thus retailing at about £10 an egg.  Alright then, £2 a box.  Even so…

1. Hard-boil your eggs, boiling rapidly for 5mins then cooling gently in the pan for 15 mins to ensure a gradual reduction of heat, preventing the shells from cracking.  In the meantime….

2. Prepare several small bowls with 1 tbsp vinegar, food colouring of your choice and enough warm water to cover the egg completely. I used plain blue and green (above), then also mixed pink and blue food colouring to create a lavender colour, and experimented with different shades and depths of colour as I went along.

3. Add the eggs in turn and check colour regularly – leave for anything from 30 seconds to 5 minutes for deep colour, before extracting with gloves or tongs. Don’t wipe the eggs but instead rest of a piece of kitchen roll or place in egg cups.  Martha’s minimum wage elves apparently build her custom-made draining boards with a grid of nails specifically calibrated for optimal egg drying, but for us mere mortals an egg cup is more than sufficient.

4. The eggs look beautiful just grouped on a tonal plate as below (this one is from Wedgwood’s Vera Wang ‘Chalk’ range and I use it constantly…), or you can experiment with speckle effects using either undiluted food colour (if you’re intending to eat the eggs) or artist’s ink or paint if not.  Be warned that using anything pink/red based could leave your kitchen looking like a scene from CSI, with extensive blood spatter pattern effects across every surface.

The good thing is, once you’ve finished displaying them (no longer than a week after cooking, and keep in the fridge in the meantime), they taste really lovely too, despite H’s obvious suspicion…

The life-shortening joy of Churros Y Chocolate

Whilst the rest of the world was celebrating St Paddy’s day this weekend we – contrary as usual – were having a bit of a Spanish moment and cooking churros for the very first time.  I’d often looked longingly at churros recipes (doughnut mix ? rolled in cinnamon sugar? That you are then actually required to dunk in hot, melty chocolate? Can it even be legal..?), but never before attempted to conquer them at home.

To the loud accompaniment of Catalan songsters The Gypsy Kings, we sashayed around the kitchen brandishing piping bags filled with an ever-expanding dough, whilst simultaneously heating a vat of oil and melting a tonne of chocolate.  It’s amazing in retrospect that nothing caught fire and no-one was sent to call for an ambulance.

My understated photo belies what a truly explosive and messy process this is, at least the first time – no kitchen surface or implement was spared, and none of the pans involved in this enterprise (there were many) looks quite the same afterwards… but oh my god it was worth it.  Eating churros dipped in molten chocolate may be the only time in life that you can actually hear your arteries furring up if you listen closely enough, but in the moment it is impossible to care.  As Harry demonstrates below, you can add fruit into the mix too if you like, but really it isn’t going to make it any healthier.  Still, life is short…

Ingredients:

For the chocolate dipping sauce:

  • 200g dark chocolate, 50g milk chocolate
  • 2 tbsp of golden syrup
  • 300ml double cream.
For the churros:
  • 90g caster sugar (for dusting after cooking, when mixed with the cinnamon)
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 125g plain flour
  • 125g self-raising flour
  • a good pinch of sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 litre sunflower oil for frying
  1. Mix the chocolate sauce ingredients in a pan over a low/medium heat until melted, then set aside until ready to use; gently reheat once the churros are cooking.
  2. Sift the flours and salt together into a heatproof bowl; make a well in the centre.
  3. Mix the olive oil with 450ml of boiling water. Stir well then add to the flour and mix to make a smooth paste (you can do this in a mixer if you prefer). The dough will be sticky and puffy and will adhere to every part of you it touches; be warned.
  4. Spoon the dough into a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle and place in the fridge to chill until ready to use.
  5. Heat a saucepan of oil to 170c / until a piece of bread sizzles on contact.
  6. Pipe your churros, snipping each one off at whatever length you’re happy with.
  7. Toss each one in the sugar mix and set on a plate with the chocolate dipping sauce.  Wait whilst each of your friends declares undying love for you before grudgingly passing around the table.
recipe adapted from Thomasina Miers’ book Mexican Food Made Simple

Unnatural Passions…

So there I was in the new kitchen, sniggering at a story in the news about a lady in the US who was experiencing a distinctly unrequited passion for the Statue of Liberty, whom she intended to marry at the earliest opportunity.  ’A rare disorder’, mused the gravely serious experts, which meant that she was ‘irrevocably attracted to inanimate objects’, causing the same pulse-racing, obsessional behaviour that might occur in a normal woman were George Clooney to move in next door.  The Eiffel Tower too, it seems, has a flurry of admirers who become a little skittish and flirtatious when in its presence.

Imagine my surprise when my husband looked me in the eye and asked me, gently yet firmly, whether I recognised any of these symptoms.  He drew my attention to the way I stroke our Italian granite worktops, sigh contentedly at the soft-close doors and am happy as a clam just gazing at our new range cooker for the entire 45 minutes it takes to cook a Findus Ready Meal.  My denials faded rapidly…. in my defence, at least a new kitchen is – generally speaking –  a lower maintenance and less threatening lover than the usual alternatives.

So here it is; the object of my affections….

The room used to be a shag-pile carpeted living room, before we reconfigured the space to create a kitchen/diner. We had a mould made of the original coving and will continue it along the new back wall (above). The flooring is engineered artisan oak with a linen whitewash; it’s probably my favourite thing, and is great for tricycles…

A pair of dressers hold a collection of white and neutral china, including this cow creamer which holds a place in my heart as the quirkiest yet most utterly useless milk jug ever.

It would be untrue to say that the whole kitchen was designed around this beautiful and organic light from BTC, but we certainly had it in mind from the outset; six porcelain bell-cups cast a soft glow over the dining table.  Assembling it and wiring in without dropping a clanger (literally) is a feat of engineering and would make  a good game show challenge.

An off-white sofa may seem a ludicrous choice for a family kitchen, but this one is treated with industrial-grade stain guard and has so far resisted wine, chocolate, mud and just about everything else a 2yr old can throw at it.

The range cooker from French company Lacanche looks the bees-knees but its opaque doors and my resultant inability to peer inside without opening the door means that my baking skills are going to have to improve…

We kept the original fireplace and added a stone surround from London company Chesneys. After a frenzy of chimney sweeping we held our breath and built a fire; now evenings are spent pottering around the kitchen whilst logs spit and crackle in the hearth.

We’re taking our time with accents (not least because we need to earn some more money first…), and will add counter stools, in due course.  For now a clock and blackboard lean against the wall and can be moved around as we decide on their ultimate position.

And finally, the fireside log basket doubles as a stool and portable play table when fitted with our barrel-top breadboard

Spring Fever

After a couple of stuttering false starts, it’s clear that Spring is just around the corner and Harry and I are alternating between indoors and outdoors at the drop of a hat.  Thank heaven for wipe-clean wood flooring. When the sap is rising and the buds are bursting into colour, it makes me come over all green-fingered, so this week we’ve been experimenting with growing cress, the ultimate in instant-gratification gardening.  There’s something so bafflingly magical about being able to toss a generous and unfettered handful of seeds onto some damp cotton wool and see them sprout forth overnight. For those with patchy childhood memories, each stage is demonstrated with gusto by Harry, below. Our admittedly rather camp collection of Cressmen are now 5 days old and ready for a first trim…



Step 1: moisten some cotton wool in lukewarm water

Step 2: Insert carefully into your egg cup.  Pause to wipe hands on your jumper.

Step 3: Scatter a small handful of seeds carefully into the cup, covering the cotton wool

Step 4: Abandon this plan; instead, scatter seeds flamboyantly over all surfaces

Step 5: Your work is complete. Retire for a nap whilst Mummy clears up and entertains herself attaching eyes and moustaches to your efforts, in homage to The Village People.

And then… For something a little more grown-up, and to give the impression that great culinary endeavours occur in my kitchen, I also planted up a few wilting supermarket herbs into a variety of different decorative containers (including a copper coffee tin, right), and am diligently watering, trimming and tossing into any dish which may warrant additional greenery… aesthetics may outweigh flavour here, but at least they look pretty. Maybe a little understated compared to the Cressmen, but then there’s only so many things you can attach fake eyes to…

A-List Baking

Say what you like about Gwyneth Paltrow, the girl’s obviously got buns of steel and thighs that could crack a walnut at 30 paces. Previously I have attributed this to a diet of pea shoots and a life frittered away in the gym, so I was delighted to discover that au contraire,she maintains her svelte physique by baking and snacking on jammy biscuits.  Well okay then, we’ll call them gluten-free thumbprint cookies.

Harry and I unashamedly customised her recipe in her recent book ‘My Father’s Daughter’, having been delighted to find something so suited to our natural kitchen style, namely a cookie that is actually supposed to be a greyish-brown colour when finished, and also to have a very dented and uneven appearance.  I must ‘fess up that here the similarities end, as Gwyneth confidently predicted a batch of ‘around 50′ cookies, and our efforts yielded, well, 12.  This portion control could explain many things.  Still, H and I will maintain our belief that a proper cookie is one of a size which requires both hands to get a good grip.

Recipe follows… they taste wickedly, addictively good.  Eat one and then give the rest away. Quickly.

Step One: Combine all of the ingredients except for the jam.  Roll into balls and place of a baking sheet.  Demonstrated here by my beautiful assistant Ted Glen, of Postman Pat fame.

Step 2: Make a thumbprint dent, then add a healthy dollop of jam in the centre of each

Step 3: Bake in the oven for 20 mins.  Use this time to either a) kill yourself on the treadmill in preparation for the carb onslaught or b) make a large pot of coffee and locate a comfy chair and a plate.

Step 4: Admire, consume, repeat.

Recipe:

4 cups of Barley flour

3 cups of chopped almonds (we used pistachio nuts instead – we love them)

1 cup of Maple syrup

1 cup of oil

Pinch of salt, teaspoon of ground cinnamon

Jam – any flavour you like.

adapted from Gwyneth’s Paltrow’s  ’Lalo’s Cookies’ recipe

Hearth of the Home

Tonight’s the night, at long last! Sparks will fly, flames will ignite… but before I am accused of over-sharing, let me reassure you that I mean this in the most literal sense.  After months of preparation, we now have two open fires, one with a wood burning stove, just itching to be lit. Armed with firelighters, kindling, kiln-dried logs, scented wax pine cones and seemingly every other conceivable piece of fire-starting equipment, we are determined to raise a glass of weekend-is-here wine to the accompaniment of the crackle of logs and the warming glow of the hearth. All that remains are the two necessary precautions of alerting the local fire brigade and gaffer-taping our toddler son to a comfy chair, and we will be ready.

The journey began some weeks ago with the arrival of the promisingly-named Gareth The Sweep, who we chose at random for the completely irrelevant reason that he sounded like an extra from Under Milk Wood. In the event, Gareth proved to be a chirpy cockney who vanished up our admittedly spacious chimney breasts and reappeared smuttily the following week having exhaustively cleared all our nooks and crannies.

It has not escaped me that Spring has stealthily marched on whilst we have been labouring through the necessary preparations, so here are a few ideas which caught my eye for when warmer weather arrives and the fireplaces become simply decorative…

Since buying a giant 80cm glitter ball on Ebay from a nightclub which had folded, I’ve been looking for how to use it in the house… genius.

A contemporary twice on the traditional bust in a fireplace; the coral keeps it fresh, as does the angle.

Pumpkins would make a great Autumnal / Halloween accent

Antlers (faux or naturally shed of course..) would look great piled randomly in the hearth, or stacked in a fire basket

Too permanent for a simple seasonal shift, this nonetheless would look great in a disused hearth or – if the logs are cut shallowly enough – as a faux fireplace with a deep surround attached to an otherwise plain wall

First Snow

Despite the fact that my son was born in a snowstorm and then Christened a year later amidst flurries as deep as he was high, Harry has never yet experienced snow.  The last snow fell when he was still crawling and tottering, oblivious to it all, so this winter he has been feverishly waiting for the kind of glorious, thickly falling snowball-snow promised by all the films and books he’s seen this Christmas.  We were finally rewarded last night with promises of an overnight dump, and Harry got to stand in his slippers in the garden and feel the first few flakes before bed.  He awoke – on a Sunday no less, how good does it get? – to knee-deep snow, of a perfect consistency for exploration.  The first shock was how utterly cold it is (who knew?), and then a whirlwind discovery of snowballs, sledging, frozen ponds and snowmen-building took place in the space of an hour, before hot chocolate was called for.  We took the opportunity to kick back and watch my husband clearing the driveway whilst we drank; there’s nothing like witnessing hard-work to wear you out.

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February Lust List: mood lifters for chilly days

As I write, swathed in 4 layers of clothing and with an oil-fired heater cranking and spluttering at my ankles (searing hot ankles, since you ask; the rest of me is numb), the temperature outside is minus 2 degrees, and a focus on instant mood lifters seemed appropriate.  My 3 best recent discoveries, all under £50, are perfect for days like today when you just need a little something special to put a spring in your metaphorical step.  John Lewis has just started stocking candles from the delectable Herve Gambs, and Bois de Cashmere is in my view the most decadent and best… I won’t ramble like an amateur parfumiere, but suffice to say it is woody and fresh and cottony and just pretty damned expensive smelling, and adds a literal whiff of luxury to any room.  Once the room is sorted, it’s time to focus on self and Deborah Lippmann’s Across the Universe varnish is my winter bling – despised by husband and probably all sensible men, it is nonetheless a girl’s dream, radiating sparkle and jauntiness with every gesture you make.  Use sparingly over a pale blue base to avoid the full-on peacock effect…  and finally a more tactical choice; the Hunter pompom scarf.  Begging to be wrapped at least twice round your neck, this has so far gone with everything I’ve tried it with, and has even been co-worn by my son during an evening on the sofa; there’s certainly enough to go around.  And with 5 colours to choose from, it would be foolish to limit yourself to just one… *sigh*