About

a passionate food-lover who really enjoys cooking, eating and sharing the culinary delights of the world around me. Seasonal, fairly produced and regional ingredients are what interest and inspire me, so grab your spoon and join me!

Venetian Visiting

Venice. A place of my dreams and possibly my favourite place in the world. I’ve been obsessed with this city for over half my life. Lucky enough to visit often, due to life events totally getting in the way I haven’t been back for almost 5 years.  It’s the light that gets me. Every time and even when it’s foggy. The reflection of sky and water creates a luminous glow that artists have tried to capture for centuries. It calms me and makes me happy to be there. Add in the architecture, the art, the quirky narrow streets that suddenly open up into grand squares, the bustle of the Rialto and St Mark’s, the quieter residential neighbourhoods with washing hung like flags, the boats and gondolas; and my love for the city becomes obvious.  Everywhere I go the gentle susurration of the water accompanies my footsteps echoing on the stone pavements and bridges. It’s a feast for the senses – visual stimulation especially to the max. I’ve visited Venice some 15 times in my life, residing there for a few months in my early twenties and still each time I visit, I find new things to look at and experience. It never becomes totally familiar and Venice always shows me a little bit more.

It was a flying visit this time, two days, three nights with a dear friend who shares my love of Venice, and capacity for enjoying all that La Serenissima has to offer her visitors. We arrived giddy as kippers to be back again and left clutching booty in the form of eye watering expensive water glasses, dried porcini mushrooms, formaggio Asiago & of course lots of biscotti.

Best lemon cake ever

Well, IMHO anyway. I’ve been making this for years. And years. Originally tore it out of a magazine. It’s by Nigel Slater so that already tells you it’s going to be good but not overly fancy. I’m a big fan of Nigel’s writing and recipes – he does simplicity so beautifully. I’m not a cake decorator – my usual attempts tend to look somewhat messy, I haven’t really ever progressed past the fluffing up of buttercream with a fork and sprinkling over some decorations, so for me this is the perfect cake – plain looking but delicious nonetheless.

Lemon Drizzle Cake

Ingredients:

200g butter
200g caster sugar
zest of two large or three small lemons
200g self raising flour
3 free range eggs

125g demerara sugar
juice of the lemons

Preheat oven to 180C/ 160C fan or GM4

Line a 20cm round tin ( I have also made this in a loaf tin but you will need to increase the cooking time by a further 15 minutes).

Cream together the butter & sugar till fluffy. Add the lemon zest and stir well. Add the eggs one at a time with a spoonful of the flour and then fold rest of the flour into the mixture.

Spoon into the cake tin and smooth the surface. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, measure out the demerara sugar and add the lemon juice to dissolve the sugar. As soon as the cake is baked and removed from the oven, stab the cake all over with a fork and pour over the lemon & sugar mix. This will soak into the cake whilst it’s hot and form a lovely crust.

Leave cake to cool in the tin, then turn out and eat. Perfectly delicious plain, it’s also rather nice with a dollop of creme fraiche.

Variations on a theme:

This recipe also works well using a whole orange instead of the lemons. I also make a gluten free version, using 3 limes and adding in 3 large tablespoons of plain yogurt to counteract the more drying quality of the gluten free flour, and also adding 2 heaped tsp of gluten free baking powder. See also the alternative Christmas cake recipe posted on this site – using spices and clementines.

Do try it. It’s super easy and I’ve never known anyone not like it, yet!

Picture of lemon cake

Lemon Drizzle, not a looker but tastes fab!

Rysp – a Plain Tasty treat

I first came across the Rysp a couple of years ago at Wirral’s Farm Feast – held at Claremont Farm. A smiley man offered me a taste of a new product made from a 100% rye sourdough – a crunchy crisp bread with a hint of Scandinavia that also managed to be wheat & dairy free and rather nice for dipping into lovely things like hummus. Since that first taste, I’ve spotted Rysp stocked in more and more places, and developing into an award-winning product (Great Taste).

For my “day” job, I work with Liverpool Food People – a managed network of people, communities and organisations who are all working in one way or another to make Liverpool a more sustainable food city. We had a discussion day planned – looking at how we were developing and new plans for the future – and as always, I was planning to supply the group with a lunch to keep them going whilst we wrestled with concepts such as sustainability, behavioural change and policy strategies. Plain Tasty, the company behind the Rysp had been in contact with me to see if I would review the range, so it seemed serendipitous to try Rysps out on the lunch guests.

Plain Tasty sent over 3 varieties of Rysp – Garlic & Rosemary, Caraway & Black Pepper, and Dulse (Seaweed) & Sesame Seed; plus a new product in development called Kryka – a larger flatter crisp bread that came in Beetroot & Rye and Skye (Sea Salt) & Rye.Rysp I encouraged people to sample them “plain” and then try with a variety of different dips – hummus, broadbean & pea and smoked mackerel; and also with cheeses – ewe’s milk Parlick Fell, tangy Kick Ass cheddar, creamy Cornish brie and smoked Lancashire.

The clear favourite was the Garlic & Rosemary, closely followed by the Dulse & Sesame Seed. The Garlic & Rosemary were being eaten by the handful without dips and disappeared sharpish, and were described as “very moreish”. Dulse & Sesame Seed got approval from the fish lovers who particularly enjoyed it with the mackerel pate. The larger Skye & Rye Kryka also proved popular, as it allowed for the building of a Scandi style open sandwich. Fingers crossed that goes into production soon.

One of the things I liked best about Rysp was the simplicity of the ingredients – here’s the list for the Garlic & Rosemary Rysps:       IMG_7878
Rye Flour sourdough 81%
Black sesame seeds 10%
Garlic 4%
Rosemary 3%
Salt 2%

No other nasties, plenty of fibre (something we all need more of) and handily for the way food trends are going, 100% vegan.

If you’d like to try Rysp for yourself, you can order online from www.plaintasty.com or check for retailers such as the marvelous Tebay service stations, Lunya in Liverpool & Manchester and the WholeFood markets in London. Expect to pay around £2.99 for a 30g bag.

Disclaimer: I was given these products in exchange for my honest review and opinion. This review is my own personal opinion on the product, given in good faith and has not been sponsored or endorsed. The photography unless otherwise stated / credited is also my own. None of the links are affiliate links

Live LAGOM 3

Time for the final blog and is this the end of the journey? No, I don’t think so. Doing the Live LAGOM challenge has brought new insight into things I can do to live more sustainably. I said at the beginning that I thought I already “did my bit”; but nevertheless I’ve learnt stuff and made changes.

Energy – mild winter or not, the addition of extra rugs and blinds on the windows has made a difference. Definitely cut the draughts from single glazed (grade 2 listed) windows and gaps in floorboards. Furry housemates have greatly approved too.

Cat on a rug

Cat approval given

New LED lights, replacing of bulbs and reusable batteries for fairy lights dotted about the place have also helped the cosy effect. And there’s been some energy saving – I’ve just renewed my plan with Ovo (green tariff, natch) and my direct debit has dropped by £11 per month due to reduction in use. So that’s £132 saved.

 

Tidying – seems an odd one, but being a bit more organised by using the KORKEN glass jars in my cupboards has meant it’s a whole lot easier to do a stock take on what I actually have and therefore don’t need to buy again. I’ve also been inspired by the Live LAGOM philosophy of having just enough to review my home in general. I joined a Facebook group – Living with Less – as a way to share the triumphs and challenges of tackling the hoarding instinct I’ve inherited from my parents. Not quite there yet, but I’ve shed rather a lot of books, excess kitchenalia, old clothes and my favourite thing, hoarded paper. Over 300 magazines and five boxes of newspaper clippings have been recycled and I’ve got into the habit of putting read magazines by the front door, ready to pass on to hospitals and doctors’ waiting rooms. I’ve also stopped two subscriptions, never having the time to read them so that’s another £72 a year saved. On the list to do next? Sort out the linen cupboard and attic.

I’m also embracing William Morris’s maxim, “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. Because I don’t like waste, I also hang onto things a little too long, so the beautiful reference is especially apt. Torn? Stained? Chipped? Recycled. I’m also trying very hard to stop “saving for best” – life is short, so we need to use the best china, light the expensive candles and wear the good shoes. Mind you, it is a bugger when you then break something nice…

herb and tomato plants

Herb and tomato plants

Gardening – I’ve always enjoyed a potter but haven’t done much seed sowing before. My little VINDRUVA greenhouses have enabled me to grow tomato plants from scratch, so much so, that they are slightly taking over the house. Annoyingly, I managed to drop one greenhouse cover – and unfortunately, they don’t bounce on a stone floor. So that’s on the list for replacement. I also had a go at the herb pots – success for parsley & basil, not so much for the mint. A couple of things from my list haven’t quite found their niche yet the BITTERGURKA hanging planters are a little too big for indoor use in my home and because they have no drainage holes, they’re not so useful outside, filling up rapidly with rainwater – although that’s useful in itself! The outdoor SKRUV lights on a timer have also made my little courtyard area safer (no more tripping over plant pots on the way to the bin); and more useable after dark.

Whom would I recommend taking part in this challenge? Everyone really. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on your everyday activity, the habits we all get into and the chance to make a few small changes that can have a big impact.

Live LAGOM. Not just an excuse to go shopping.

IKEA goodies

IKEA goodies

Small niece being a bee.

Small niece being a bee.

Below The Line

A challenge from a Twitter mate – Sal Godfrey has led to me attempting to live below the line – ie below the poverty line on the princely sum of £1 per day for 5 days. Yup £5 for 15 meals.

My Shopping List

Chopped tomatoes 400g 24p

500g carrots 25p

Peanut butter 89p

Chicken stock cubes 30p

Plain flour 1.5 kilos 45p

Soft cheese 180g 49p

Butter 79p

500g penne pasta 29p

1 kilo onions 35p

4 baking potatoes 35p

Broccoli 35p

Total: £4.75 – Sal says we are allowed salt, pepper & herbs at 1p a pinch so am “spending” my last 25p on salt, pepper, oregano and smoked paprika. All I can say is thank goodness for Aldi and their Super 6 deals…

You’ll note there’s no tea or coffee, no wine, cake or treats. And definitely no gin. None….

So how to do this? Basic and repetitive frankly. One thing I know about myself is I get “hangry” – short tempered when not fed. So my 5 day menu is pretty carb heavy as I know it will fill me up and prevent Lucy rage. I bought flour so I could continue to make my sourdough bread, which although not using the spelt & lovely organic flour I usually spring for, will at least make a decent couple of loaves. Breakfast will be sourdough toast with peanut butter. And water. Yum.

Soup is my go to for the office lunch in any case but I do usually supplement it with lots of fruit and a nice yogurt. Not this week. Starting with a big pot of minestrone, made with carrots, onions, pasta, potato, broccoli stems, stock and a bit of wild garlic for additional flavour. I miss the umami hit of parmesan but cooked long and slow, the veggies do become full of flavour and the pasta adds a bit of bulk. Add a slice or two of bread (told you this was a carb heavy diet) and I’m set up for the afternoon.

First day supper, couldn’t be bothered faffing so baked a potato, scooped out the centre – mashed it with pepper & butter, added grated carrot and two teaspoons of cream cheese and shoved it back in the oven to crisp up. It was filling but a bit dull to be frank. Normally I’d have served something like this with a lovely green salad drizzled with ev oil and lemon. Instead I made do with more wild garlic (thank goodness it’s in season) some dandelion greens and half of my broccoli florets. No dressing. Sad face.

Day 2. Same breakfast & lunch so won’t bore with the details. Got a bit fancy for supper though with a creamy pasta bake. Achieved with 300g penne, an onion, a carrot, 1 pack of chopped tomatoes, a little butter, oregano, some more wild garlic and a dollop of the cream cheese. Topped with cucina povera style rough chopped breadcrumbs and crisped up in the oven with a little butter dotted over – an old Italian trick to deceive the mouth into feeling like you’re eating lovely crunchy melted cheese. Enough for three nights, that’s Wednesday and Thursday taken care of.

So how do I feel? Bored. Bit cross and missing my morning coffee. I don’t drink a lot of caffeine, I went off it last year when ill, but I do like a morning coffee when I get up. Breakfast is a favourite meal of mine, I like poached eggs, kippers, bacon, avocado on toast etc. Peanut butter on toast is hitting the savoury note I crave but I can tell I’m going to be fed up of it by Friday. What am I missing? CHEESE. Can I emphasise that a bit more? C H E E S E. Not that fussed about meat tbh, I can manage without slabs of it but I do like adding bits of bacon/ ham etc for flavour to much of the food I make. I’m also not much for sweets, so the lack of sugar hasn’t been too hard to deal with but not having fresh fruit has been tough to take. And of course, the minute you tell yourself you can’t have something, it becomes the one thing you want…

Thank God It’s Friday. Last day of this experiment and I’ve got no reason to complain. I’ve been fed, monotonously, but haven’t gone hungry. More importantly, I’ve chosen to do this, not because I have to. Tomorrow I can run off and buy lovely things and play in the kitchen because I’m fortunate enough to have a full time job that pays me decently. What have I learnt? That I’ll smack the next person who suggests people who are struggling on a low income don’t know how to budget. I’ve spent more time working out how to live on £1 a day for food and juggling my pennies than I normally ever think about when food shopping. I’m humbled. And angry that this is the “choice” for so many people in our country. I believe that food should bring joy and health to us all. It’s not just fuel and it’s wrong to treat it as such. Having just enough food in your tummy to fill you up and get by isn’t enough for the human soul.

I’ve found this week hard on several levels – one, I love cooking and making dishes, playing in my kitchen and feeding other people is my way to relax and have fun; two, it’s been boring eating the same thing, I wanted more flavour than my budget would allow; three, it’s been tiring, filling up on carbs is all very well but the lack of protein depletes energy levels, leading to tired grumpiness; four, you feel apart from everyone else, isolated in your little bubble of deprivation. Imagine that being your constant state of mind. No wonder we have high levels of depression amongst people on low incomes and asylum seekers. Doing this challenge has given me much food for thought. Thank you to Sal Godfrey from Sal’s Kitchen @Sal_Godrey for encouraging me to take part. I’ve chosen to make a donation of my “normal” food budget to Asylum Link Merseyside who support destitute asylum seekers who truly are living below the line. Find out more here: http://www.asylumlink.org.uk/ and do spare a few ££ to support your local food bank when food shopping if you can.

Fellow food bloggers who took the challenge are listed below.

http://salskitchen.blogspot.co.uk/

http://www.veggielad.com/

http://www.joeatslondon.com/

https://cateinthekitchen.co.uk

http://lepetitoeuf.com/

You can follow our week via twitter using hashtag: #fdbloggersBTL

“Recipes” below:

Cheat’s Minestrone

2 onions, chopped roughly

4 carrots, diced

Broccoli stem (not florets), diced

1 baking potato, not peeled but diced

200g pasta – ideally spaghetti but I used penne because that’s what I’d bought

4 chicken stock cubes

50g butter

Handful of wild garlic leaves

1 pinch oregano

2 pinches salt

2 pinches pepper

Prepare veg. Melt butter in large pan and add onions, cook til soft, then add carrots and broccoli stem. Cook for 5 minutes. Add in the potato and 3 litres of chicken stock made up with the stock cubes. Add oregano and salt and pepper, stir well and leave to gently simmer for two hours on a low heat. Add the pasta – break it up into small pieces and chopped wild garlic and cook for another 5 minutes or so til the pasta has softened. Serve.

 

Penne Pasta Bake

2 onions, chopped

2 carrots, diced

400g chopped tomatoes

30g butter

1 pinch oregano

2 pinches salt

2 pinches pepper

2 tbsp cream cheese

handful of wild garlic leaves, chopped

300g penne pasta

chicken stock cube

two slices of stale bread torn up into small pieces

20g of butter, diced

Melt 30g butter in an oven/ hob proof dish. Add chopped onions and carrots and sauté gently over a low heat for 10 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, rinsing out the tin/ box with water to get every last bit out! Add oregano and chicken stock cube and leave to simmer gently for half an hour, until the veggies are tender and the sauce has reduced and thickened. Take off heat and stir in cream cheese and wild garlic. Set aside whilst you cook pasta to al dente (it cooks more in the sauce in the oven). Add pasta to the creamy tomato sauce, stir well and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle over the bread crumbs/ pieces and dot with butter. Place in a medium oven, 180C/ GM5 and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the sauce is bubbling and the topping has crisped up. Serve.

Wild garlic potato gnocchi with cream cheese & broccoli

 2 baking potatoes

Flour

Wild garlic leaves

Cream cheese

Broccoli florets

1 onion

20g butter

Cook potatoes in their skins – either in the oven or boiling them until tender. Scoop the flesh out into a bowl and mash with a fork. Shred the wild garlic leaves and mix in. Whilst still hot, add flour slowly till you have a smooth dough. Set aside in a cool place to rest for half an hour. Dust chopping board with flour and turn out dough. Divide in half and roll out into two long sausages. Cut into half inch pieces, rolling in a little more flour and set aside to firm up in the fridge.

Make sauce – cook broccoli florets in a little water until tender don’t use lots of water because you want to use the water as part of the sauce. Mash with a fork and set aside. Chop the onion finely and cook in the butter til soft and golden, don’t allow to brown. Add the mashed broccoli mixture and then stir in the cream cheese to make a creamy green sauce. Season.

Bring a pan of water to a rolling boil, season with salt and drop the gnocchi pieces in one at time. They will rise to the surface as they cook, scoop out with a slotted spoon into a colander to drain. Add gnocchi to the broccoli sauce, toss gently and eat!

 

Live LAGOM 2

Bit of a serious post this. It’s time for my second blog about the journey I’ve embarked upon as a member of the live LAGOM community. And it is a journey. To recap, live LAGOM is a project by IKEA, encouraging a group of us to think about living more simply and with “just enough”. We’ve all been given access to a wide range of IKEA products to help us in this goal. Home visits were made by the IKEA team and recommendations were offered based on current living. As I mentioned in a previous post, I like to think I already “do my bit”: I recycle, monitor my energy usage, buy organic meat and vegetables, bake my own bread, preserve fruit etc. BUT. I also use a car, almost daily; I hoard food – my store cupboards bulge; and my particular besetting sin is the retention of stuff.

I live in a grade 2 Georgian cottage in Liverpool. Sandstone walls, stone floors, draughty single glazed windows that don’t let in much light, and planning required to make significant changes such as installing double glazing. From a practical point of view I needed to cosy things up, and add more light. My IKEA booty included 5 rugs, 3 blinds, 3 lamps and a whole load of battery operated LED fairy lights to use in dark corners. It’s been a mild winter but nevertheless it does get chilly, adding rugs & a blind to my bedroom means I’ve not actually switched on the radiator at all in there as the white fabric blinds block draughts from the window but don’t cut the light.

Morning light.

Morning light.

And I love that they are magnetic! The new rugs keep my feet warm on the cold floors and have been very popular with my furry housemates…

I’ve also been rearranging my cupboards, with the help of a LOT of Ikea glassware. Not perfect yet, but the systematic use of jars large enough to hold all my spices is meaning that at least I can see what I need before I go to the shops.

I mentioned this was a serious post at the start, so I should explain why. My Dad passed away 6 years ago, leaving me as executor of his will and sorter out of his estate. This was no small task. He resided in an 8 bedroomed house, plus garage and cellars. It was the family home for 40 years and I’d moved in with him in his last year, mostly to try to help him sort it out and aim to down size into something more manageable for a gentleman in his later years who wasn’t in the best of health. Sadly he died before we could achieve this, but I’d begun the truly Herculean task of going through the house. If I tell you that it took me TWO years to clear the house, and during that time I found myself dealing with much of my deceased mother AND grandmother’s personal items, you may have an inkling over what changes I want to make within my own home.  My own attic contains boxes of “items” left over from this period. Stuff I just couldn’t deal with, have no clue what to do with but struggle to throw out.

I really, really don’t want to end up like my Dad, filling rooms with “stuff” rather than throwing it out. I’m already spotting an alarming tendency to hoard paper – newspaper clippings, magazines, birthday cards etc.  So, not only did I join the Live LAGOM project, with an aim to be more sustainable, I also really want to take the message of “just enough” seriously.  I found a group on Facebook – it’s a closed one but you can apply to join – called Living With Less – basically it’s an online cheerleader for those of us who are trying really hard to reduce the clutter and live simpler lives. We post about the difficulty of letting stuff go, cheer on each other when we manage it and console each other when we just can’t deal with it any more. Since January 2016 I have got rid of: 5 boxes of magazines; 3 boxes of newspaper clippings; 28 books; 4 bags of “nope, you’re really not EVER going to wear that again” clothes; 2 boxes of random knick knacks (mostly weird presents, sorry); and 2 lamps that “just needed a little work”. I have a long way to go yet, haven’t even started on the stuff in the attic, but it’s a start. I want clutter free space where I can display the things I really DO want to keep.  Still trying to Live LAGOM…

Cat on a rug

Cat approval given

A caffeinated week….

I like coffee. I do. But I am a bit fussy about it. Not for me the spoonful of instant. Nope. I have a little Italian Moka pot, not quite as shiny as it once was, but capable of making me the perfect morning coffee. I use Guatemalan FairTrade coffee, a rich sweet but strong bean that I was introduced to in a restaurant in Belgium many moons ago and has remained my go to coffee bean ever since. I like coffee the Italian way, not a bucket of milk but a short, satisfying hit of coffee topped with foamy milk and NO chocolate sprinkles or other flavours.

picture of a flat white coffee

Flat white, artisan style by Filter and Fox, Liverpool

I was contacted by Havas PR (working on behalf of Greggs) to ask if I would sample and compare a range of coffees available from various high street brands. To make things fair, I was asked to compare the same drink in each establishment and mark each one on the following: Taste, Value, Fresh, Smell and Aesthetic. I was not paid for this but provided with gift vouchers to use in each establishment.

Obviously this is a personal view and what I find palatable others may not but I was surprised at the results. When I order coffee “out” I usually choose a flat white or an espresso. For this test I went with the flat white.

Starbucks – nice aroma but very creamy. Slight bitter aftertaste, not full bodied. Very hot. Smaller cup that had to be doubled due to not fitting the cardboard sleeve. Most expensive drink.

Costa – good aroma, creamy and rounded taste. My usual gripe is that it’s too big a serving and I rarely finish it. (To declare an interest, this is where I usually buy a coffee if I’m not near the preferred option of an independent coffee place). Not the prettiest of cups but most practical in terms of its corrugated wall preventing scalded hands.

Pret a Manger – good aroma but bitter coffee, very acidic. Didn’t finish it. Almost too hot to drink, was the milk burnt? Needed to sit a little before serving I suspect. Simple cup, but as per Starbucks, so hot it was hard to hold.

Greggs – good aroma. Not as silky as some I’ve had but perfectly pleasant cup of coffee. Coffee used was quite mellow, didn’t leave a harsh aftertaste. Not sure I’d class it as a flat white, more of a coffee with hot milk but best value of the lot in terms of cost and taste comparisons. Simple cup – why not make more of the 100% FairTrade? I almost missed that and it wasn’t highlighted in the shop like it is in Pret. Least expensive drink but also only one that wasn’t made from scratch i.e. barista style.
.
Caffe Nero* – harsh coffee, left bitter aftertaste. Seemed thin, not rounded, no aroma, didn’t finish it. Distinctive blue cup – like Costa – immediately obvious which brand you have chosen.

*I went to Caffe Nero last and discovered that they don’t serve a flat white. So I had a cappuccino sans chocolate as the closest I could manage.

Taste  Value  Fresh  Smell  Aesthetic  Total
Starbucks                                     3         3        4         3       3             16
Costa                                           4         3        4         4        2             17
Pret a Manger                              2         1         3        4        2             12
Greggs                                         4         4        3         3        2             16
Caffe Nero                                   1          1        3         3        3             11

So in conclusion, following the marks, Costa came out top, just, but the least and most expensive coffees from Greggs and Starbucks tied. As already stated, Costa is the brand I am most familiar with, but I was surprised by how much I disliked the Pret a Manger and Caffe Nero coffees, clearly I’m not a fan of the coffee beans that they use! I am still going to purchase my flat white from an artisan coffee place (no, I have no beard, nor tattoos), as I like to support local micro businesses but if that option isn’t available, I may revisit Greggs again for a coffee.

picture of coffee cards

Coffee cards supplied by Havas PR

Live LAGOM

picture of store cupboard

One of the hiding places…

It probably says something worrying about me that the phrase Live LAGOM runs through my head to the tune of Ricky Martin’s Living La Vida Loca. Every time I think of it. And I’m going to think about it a lot this year. What am I on about? LAGOM originates as a Swedish phrase Lagom är bäst, meaning the right amount is best. Think Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it’s the porridge that was “just right”, not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold, not too sweet, not too salty. It’s a concept that IKEA are keen for us all to embrace. Enjoying all that life has to offer but in moderation, by living sustainably and looking after the planet as you do.

I’ve been chosen to take part in the IKEA Live LAGOM challenge, joining another 249 households across Britain who are all hoping to reduce waste, save money, energy and water, and live healthier and more sustainable lives. We’ve each been given a budget to spend on IKEA products that will help us on this journey, enabling us to make changes, some small, some larger, in how we live. It’s going to be challenging, interesting and hopefully inspirational being part of this project.

My first thought, when approached about this, was but I already do all that. Don’t I? I recycle, I use low energy bulbs, I’m fanatical about food waste, I turn the lights off when I leave rooms, turn off electrical items not in use, monitor my water use, surely there’s not much else I can do? Oh but there is. Much, much more. I live in a 200 years old stone cottage. It’s grade 2 listed so I’m restricted in what I can do externally – no double glazing allowed – but that doesn’t mean I can’t reduce the draughts by adding internal blinds to all those windows. I have a mix of stone and wooden floors that can get a tad chilly underfoot, so that’s rugs added to the list. My scented geraniums that come in for winter and go out for summer – self watering pots with wheels – immediate benefits for all concerned – me not giving myself a hernia lifting the pots, the plants getting the RIGHT amount of water.

And what about my behaviour? What can I change? I have a confession to make. I hoard. Food. Paper. Books. Stuff. Time to let some of it go. My resolutions for this year have all been about simplifying. Starting with the food thing. I’m an unabashed food fanatic. I write about it, make it, eat it – I even work in a food related area – I’m the Regional Food Economies project manager for the NW and I blog and tweet as Grab Your Spoon, as well making and selling my own preserves under the same name. So I have cupboards. Full of spices, sugars, exotic ingredients, types of flour, pastas, pulses etc. You rock up to my house with an army in tow? I’ll feed you. No problem. Except there is a problem. I really can’t see the spelt wheat for the self-raising flour. I have NO idea what is in my cupboards. They are crammed. This means I regularly re-buy things that I already own. I make a guess when shopping as to whether or not I have turmeric. Turns out I do. Three unopened packets of it, that aren’t going to get used up before the potency of the ground spice dissipates. This is NOT cool. Bring on the stackable glass jars from IKEA that are going to help me organise my pantry. Lists are going to be made. Labels will be printed. And I WILL have order. Same of course goes for the fridge, the freezer and the slidy drawers in my tiny kitchen. Described as functional chaos, I’d like the kitchen to be a bit more functional and a bit less chaotic. I’ll deal with the books, the paper and the other stuff afterwards. One step at a time, and this kitchen is going to be a big step. Upside, inside out, I’m living La Vida LAGOM….

Butternutty Soup

So here we are on the 3rd January 2016. It’s a grey, wet and frankly miserable day. The festivities are over, the tree is taken down, decorations tidied away and it’s back to work or school for many of us tomorrow. Cheering up food is required. Something tasty, bright and warming. Soup should fit that bill, and I have had a butternut squash kicking about the kitchen for the past two weeks that needs using up.

I’m taking part in an Ikea challenge – to Live LAGOM – which is all about simplifying your life, reducing waste and being more sustainable in all your activities. One of things I’ve put down as a personal challenge is to manage my store cupboards better. I’m convinced I was a starving peasant in a former life as I regularly overstock my pantry, secure in the knowledge that I can, if required, feed an army at short notice. However, as that army doesn’t rock up with the frequency I think it should, I end up with full cupboards and an occasional *cough* duplication of items because I can’t actually find anything in them…

With that laudable intent in mind, I spent a merry morning turning out two pantry shelves, listing everything I had, relabelling jars & chucking out things from 2008. Oops. I’ve got lots of odds and sods – some desiccated coconut, not enough for a cake; various small quantities of lentils; lots of bits of pasta; and a fine selection of nuts including unsalted cashews, pine nuts and hazelnuts. I do hate waste so I’m determined to make some meals using up these scraps.

Back to the butternut squash and the warming soup that’s so sorely needed. I don’t think I’m being particularly original in this combination of butternut squash, cashews and coconut but by gum it makes a yummy soup! Please forgive the slightly random measurements, this soup was rather chucked together, so you may need to adjust quantities to suit your own taste. I’ve also realised that I’ve created a vegan recipe, by accident not design, but one that fits nicely into January’s Veganuary theme for a few folk.

Butternutty soup

1 medium butternut squash

1 tbsp olive oil

3 cloves of garlic

1 tsp dried thyme

1 medium onion

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

2 dsp desiccated coconut

a handful of unsalted cashews (or peanuts)

1 litre veg stock

Cut up butternut squash into 2 inch or so chunks – skin and all, but remove the seeds & fibre from the centre. Toss in a baking tray with 1 tbsp of oil, thyme and three slightly crushed but not peeled garlic cloves. Place in a medium hot oven – GM5/160 fan/ 180C and roast for 25 to 30 minutes until the squash is tender. Leave til cool enough to handle, then remove skin from butternut squash pieces and squeeze out the roasted garlic.

Meantime, roughly chop the onion. Add 1 tbsp of oil to a heavy based pan, heat gently and then add the onion. Keep the heat low and cook onions til soft and translucent. Add the chilli flakes and stir well. Add the butternut squash, garlic, coconut and cashews. Pour the hot veg stock into the vegetable baking tray to rinse out any lingering flavours and decant into the soup pan. Give everything a good stir and bring to a gentle simmer for about 15 minutes. Take off the heat, let it cool slightly before blending into a rich creamy soup. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed – salt/ pepper/ pinch of cayenne if it needs more heat etc. Serve garnished with more cashews.

Soup in preparation

Vegetables cooking before stock added

Picture of butternutty soup

Butternutty Soup

Comfort me with apples

This has been a brilliant year for apples. Everywhere I go in Liverpool I have found trees dripping with apples. I have been given bushels of them by generous friends and even my cat Csardas got in on the act, bringing me an apple from next door’s tree. I do love an apple. I totally subscribe to the “one a day, keeps the doctor away” maxim and consume at least one every day. I love their variety – from the sharp almost wince making tang of a Granny Smith to the rough skinned but juicy Russet to the sweet Royal Gala. Aside from the so called dessert apples, we also have the wonderful Bramley – tart but flavoursome, with flesh that turns into a glorious fluffy puree when cooked; and the crab apple – wild fruit that makes clear apple jelly perfect for adding spices or herbs to .

I always make apple chutney – a spicy condiment with chilli, cloves and turmeric that goes fabulously with cheese. I also make apple jellies, taking immense satisfaction from the resultant clear viscosity, ranging in shade from pale gold to dark red depending on the skin of the apple used. What I haven’t done hitherto though is made much jam using apples, other than pairing them with brambles for the classic autumn jam. I’ve been ruminating on uses for apples – turnovers, tarte tatins, crumbles, pies – all of which involve the addition of sugar, spices such as cloves and cinnamon or caramel. Why not take those flavour profiles and make a jam? It’s not a new idea, there are various apple jam recipes available but I wanted to make an Apple Pie Jam – partly because I’ve been playing with traditional dessert flavours in jams and curds recently – rhubarb custard curd, black forest gateau jam, peach melba jam etc.

Bit of research yielded the following recipe from www.nutmegsseven.co.uk, which I’ve slightly tweaked to suit my own taste buds. Apple Pie Jam. It’s a thing you NEED in your life.

Apple Pie Jam (makes approximately 11 x 190g jars):

1.5 kg cooking apples (weighed after peeling and coring), half finely diced, half finely sliced
1 cinnamon sticks
6 cloves
1 tsp allspice
1kg granulated sugar
325g dark muscovado sugar
Juice of 1 lemons
275g stoned dates, roughly chopped

Put the peeled apples (add the lemon juice as you chop them to prevent them browning too much) in a large pan with the cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice, dates, sugar and two tea cups of water. Slowly heat until the sugar starts to melt and the apples release their juice. Increase the heat, stirring regularly to prevent the sugar catching on the bottom of the pan and burning. Put a small plate in the freezer.

Bring to the boil and boil until the apples have softened and the liquid has started to turn golden and reduce and the dates have begun to dissolve (you will still have some chunks of apple left through) – about 15-20 minutes. Continue to simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes but keep stirring regularly to stop it burning on the bottom – be careful and wear oven gloves for this and use a long handled spoon, as it can bubble up suddenly and scald you.

To test for a set, spoon a small amount of jam onto the cold plate from the freezer and run your finger down the middle – if it wrinkles and parts cleanly, then it’s ready. If not, continue to boil for a little while longer.

Decant into sterilised jars, (I pour just boiled water from the kettle into jars then dry them upside down in the oven at 120C for half an hour), and seal while warm to create a vacuum.

Allow to cool before labelling. Absolutely delicious on hot crumpets and also rather nice stirred into plain yogurt over porridge.