Thursday, 30 September 2010

Hot and Sour Soup (or a soup for a cold)

I got this recipe a year or so ago from Delicious magazine. It's become a staple in our house. As a busy person I appreciate that it's quick and nourishing. As a lazy person I appreciate that it's quick and nourishing and as a mother of a toddler who likes to wrap herself around my legs, I appreciate that even though it's quick, it can be made in stages.

The joy is further deepened because you can adapt it according to:

How much you want to blow your sinuses to Kingdom come (you increase the heat).
Whether you are low carbing or not (if not you can add noodles).
How many people you are feeding. You can up the broth part by adding more stock, or just beef it up by adding more prawns or mushrooms or summat. It's versatile

Here is the recipe:


1 litre of stock, vegetable or chicken, cube fine
2 large chillis, halved (deseed them if you want to, I like the extra heat, also I'm lazy, have I mentioned, so I keep the seeds in, also less chance of rubbing your eyes and burning them OUT OF YOUR HEAD if you don't de-seed them. Lisa I'm talking about you honey)
2 kaffir lime leaves, scrunched up and chucked in
3 tablespoons of fish sauce
2 lemongrass stalks, bruised(I use two teaspoons from a jar, cheaper too)
Juice of one lime
1 tablespoon of caster sugar

T'other ingredients:

125g oriental looking mushrooms
250g large raw prawns (it won't be the end of the world if they're ready cooked)
1 pak choi (I now use spinach, so much easier to eat and deal with)

200g noodles, leave out if you're low carbing.

A hanky or tissue.

First you make the broth. Put all of the first lot of ingredients in a pan, cover and simmer. The recipe says to do it for four  minutes and then sieve and then you chuck out the chillis and what not. If you want the broth hotter, simmer for longer and/or keep the ingredients in for longer before sieving.

Strain the broth into another big pan.

(If you want, you can leave it now to cool down and either put it in the fridge for later/another day or freeze it.)

Add the other ingredients. If you're using frozen prawns give them five minutes cooking time, then add the pak choi etc. Cook noodles according to packet instructions, you should be able to just add them in for the last two minutes if they're regular Chinese noodles.

Slurp. Use the hanky to wipe your nose.

And yes Pete, I DID forget to put the noodles in this lunchtime!

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Kiwi sheepskin boots

Three years ago,  during my first 'country winter', my friend Rosie, one of the moderators on I Want My Mum, the parenting website I co-run with The Analytical Armadillo, told me about Kiwi Sheepskin boots.  She fair raved about them, so much so that a rare (for me) thing happened. She 'made' me buy a pair.

Ever since I saw Pamela Anderson on a beach wearing a bikini and sheepskin boots, I've wanted a pair. Of sheepskin boots (I've already got the breasts, thank you).  I know, I know: makes no sense. Now that I live in the country I decided I positively needed warm boots. I mean, I have neoprene lined wellington boots, from  my days as Fishing Correspondent of the Independent (oh yes really).

Sheepskin boots have got a bad name in the last few years, mostly because you can get really cheap rip offs (i.e. not sheepskin at all). But you need to ignore all of this. If you need warm boots nothing beats sheepskin. Don't think of them as high fashion items - they're not, they're not even a low fashion item, you missed the boat on that one; but rather think of them as what they are: practical, but nice, objects. To my mind, few things look more stupid than girls/women inadequately dressed on a very cold day.

And I thought this well before I became a mother, okay?

Kiwi sheepskin boots are really well priced. I got the Musketeer Ultimate Sheepskin boots and they now cost £107 odd including everything: P&P and customs. I think I paid about £90 for them. Who remembers. I got them in chocolate and they are rarely off my feet in the winter. They're beautiful, much nicer than the website makes them look, although I never wear them with the cuff folded down, and I doubt you will too. But you can get simpler boots, shorter, different sole, for a shade under £68. That's significantly cheaper than anywhere else I've found for real sheepskin.

A few things to note: I can't walk long distances in mine. It's all too 'soft' inside and your foot slips around. So for long walks, you really need proper walking boots. What they're excellent for is cold winter days, leisurely walks, just being out and about. Not hiking.

The sizing: I got mine too big. The sheepskin compacts after a few wears so if you're inbetween sizes, I'd counsel going to the smaller size. After a few season's wear the sheepskin inside the foot chamber wears out, so buy new insoles for extra cosiness (these you can buy anywhere, they don't need to come from there but do make sure you buy real sheepskin - not synthetic - or your feet will stink).

The service I got three winters ago was great.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Ines Rosales and her damn biscuits

Fantastic packaging and unfortunately what's in them is just as nice.

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend spotted some biscuits in Waitrose. They were on special offer and instead of the usual £2.99 they were £1.99 (the offer has now ended, at least in my Waitrose, which is the only one that matters let's face it).

The packaging was great, waxed semi-transparent paper and what looked like large wafery things inside (they are olive oil 'tortas' which just made me confused). I made a face and said "nah, they're TWO QUID". "But they might be great," he retorted. I soldiered on with the shopping trolley and the purchase was not made.

But a week or so later, we did buy them, the Seville Orange ones. Even before we were out of the carpark I'd opened them and was sampling one.

My they were delicious. Flakey, but with sugar on the top and as more-ish as 'stracci' (Italian deep fried ribbons of pastry that are simply too dangerous to eat, they are the crack cocaine of pastry). I have no idea how Ines cooks her damn biscuits but they taste deep fried. On the website they go on about how olive oil is really good for you, so I reckon the must be. They're odd though. I mean the Seville Orange ones were sweet, but not sure how you should eat them, with coffee? On their own.

By the time we got home I had eaten three of them whilst I pondered this. I still don't know.

What I do know is that they come in various versions and you absolutely should never buy them.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Nice gloves for a cold day

M&S 'Autograph' gloves in black, lined in cashmere, which is turned back here so you can see.

Close up of the lining for those who are really paticular, like me. Although it looks thick, it isn't and the gloves manage to be rather 'fino' as we say in Italian whilst also being very warm. Nice.

Two winters ago, I was in London for the day (that seems a sad sentence in a way, as I lived in London for most of my life and yet, and yet, it also makes me happy as I love Suffolk - where I live now. So I guess you'd call that a bittersweet collection of words) and got caught out on a day so cold, I couldn't carry my bags. I had no gloves with me and in a fit of extravagant desperation, I walked into Marks and Spencer's to buy some gloves.

In truth, I was after the same sort of gloves I'd bought in M&S  many years previously: sheepskin gloves. I have no idea why I'd bought sheepskin gloves. I wasn't a sheepskin sort of girl (am now, watch out for my entry on sheepskin boots 'n' slippers in a few weeks' time). But I had discovered that they were super warm when I rode my bike and also those particular ones had been fantastic value. But my lovely buff coloured sheepskin gloves had gotten a hole, you know the sort: the stitching had started to come undone and I'd done nothing about it until more and more stitches undid and as the proverb says, where once one stitch was needed, now nine were.

But M&S had no sheepskin gloves that day. They had simple leather gloves, which I didn't want (not warm enough) or all manner of what I call Bridget Jones type gloves: knitted and full of whimsy.

Instead I spied some Autograph cashmere lined leather gloves. These were exactly the opposite of what I thought I wanted, but I tried them on and was sold. They fitted beautifully, they retained some sensitivity but they were so warm it was like I'd just put my hands in a warm bath. I bought them and, for an impulsive purchase, they ended up being a fantastic buy at £25 because they soon became the gloves I wore every day. Warm, practical  but just that bit posh. I like that because often my hands are the only posh part of me.

But then, one day last year, in a blur of getting the baby in and out of the car, I lost one.

I need to pause here to tell you about another fantastic discovery I made last year. A discovery that the loss of one of my gloves, in the same week that my eldest lost her beloved Mimi the Mouse, spurred me to make. You know those Cash's name tapes? Well you can order them to say "If found, please call XXXXX". I got some made and have both Mimi the Mouses (eldest's was found in the laundry) are now 'microchipped', as are my beloved Pashminas (more on pashminas another day). Because my chocolate brown one ply pashmina is lost, lost, lost...

I haven't actually, sewn them into my new gloves yet though.

Anyway,  miraculously, given that shops have a habit of making great things and never repeating them, M&S sell the gloves again this year. Here is the link to them on line, although on-line they only seem to sell them in brown. In real life they come in black, purple or chocolate brown. They are lined in cashmere and are really warm. They've gone up to £29.50. But still, you really can't ask more of a glove.

So don't.

Update October 2012.

Obviously the link above doesn't work anymore. Here is the link to this year's offering in red, purple or grey. Or here in black. They've now gone up to £35 which makes them a better investment than a savings' account these days.

Monday, 20 September 2010


Oh look at my lovely plate of dried things. It's like Harvest time. At noon o'clock we have dried orange slices and rose petals, going clockwise we have dried sage and tarragon, cherry tomatoes, aubergines and apples. Martha Stewart will be wondering if she gave birth to me and abandoned me without remembering.

This is the time of year, apparently, when we have a glut of stuff and need to start preserving it. In Italy we'd be doing the tomatoes about now, cookin' them up, sieving them, passing them through o'Moulinex and slapping the resultant sludge into bottles we'd been saving all year. The entire neighbourhood would smell of tomatoes.

I don't do that. Mostly cos I don't grow tomatoes and let's face it, Cirio does passata for me.

What I do do at this time of year is get the dehydrator out and start drying out anything that takes my fancy.

What's the point of dehydrating stuff? Well it's a way of preserving things, if you don't want to/can't freeze it, or make it into chutneys 'n' stuff. For certain things - mushrooms for instance - it's absolutely the only thing, as far as I'm concerned, to do with them. But the great thing about a dehydrator is you can also dry your own fruit in it, so you can make your own banana chips, apple chips, you can dry blueberries, pineapple, whatever you goddam well like. In certain parts of the world that will remain nameless (America) they also dry bits of meat to make beef jerky.

I don't do this.

But you can also dry your herbs before they die off for the winter. Those that do. Apparently some don't but that sentence alone has taken me to the very edge of my horticultural knowledge.

So much so that I don't actually know if growing herbs is horticulture or something else.

Anyway. You can spend hundreds of pounds on dehydrators. And if you have an allotment, and lots of larder space and lots of jam jars and are that sort of person, then by all means spend hundreds on a dehydrator that has drawers and you can set the temperature etc. At the other end, you can easily do all of this in an oven, set very low. Disadvantages of that (unless you have an Aga, in which case you will already be a smug bastard) are that unless you have a very energy efficient oven (I do) you can end up spending loads on electricity cos you need to dry things out for about 12 hours.

And it also means you can't use the oven for anything else, unless you have two ovens (I do, do you hate me yet?). I make fruit leathers in the oven and it takes FOREVER, in the dehydrator it takes half the time.

In between all of this are cheap dehydrators which is what I've got. You can get a really good one from Lakeland. It works really well. It's big though, it has a footprint probably equivalent to an elephant's. It has trays which you stack. It's piss easy to use and clean and if you want to make fruit leathers (or meringues come to that) you just use some baking parchment over the trays. It only has an on/off button and only one temperature: 85 degrees.

A dehydrator really isn't for everyone. But I've got small children who eat a lot of banana chips and fruit leathers and I just like making my own. You can chop up dried fruit and also put it on your breakfast cereal if you don't want to just eat it as it is, but I love that too, it makes a great snack. Somehow naughtier than just eating a normal apple...I'm so sad.

You can also dry veg and just chop it up and put it into stews and sauces. I do this with aubergines and courgettes (you can also do beans, almost anything really, peas you can also do and use them in caterpaults). It's handy when you've got some veg left that you're not going to use, but don't want to waste. Dried aubergine slices cost about £5 in deli shops just cos they look pretty and are presented in cellophane bags. Also it makes the house smell amazingly of whatever you're drying so you know, like a two in one product..

Look at my little  jewels. Remember the little cherry tomatoes up top? Here they are under extra Catholic olive oil in my favourite jam jars, Bonne Maman. That's my vegetable (raised) bed you can see in the background. Smell the smugness.


Friday, 17 September 2010

Batteries for Christmas presents and every day life

This isn't going to be my last post with Christmas in the title. I warn you.

But this is just  a short little entry, without reference to my childhood about a good place to get cheap batteries.

7DAYSHOP is where I get all my batteries, and have done for years. Its based in Guernsey so lots of things are VAT free. I buy a box of 40 Duracell AA batteries for just over £13. Don't even get me started on the price difference on CR2032s which are those 'coin' lithium batteries you need for so many things.

Postage is generally free, so when you next need batteries, just be a tiny bit more organised and get them from there.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Spicy butternut squash and coconut soup: soup for a cold day or for when you have a cold.

I'm in the mood for soup. I've got a cold. I'm cold. I'm fairly miserable, which my partner tells me is pretty standard nowadays ("you're disproportionately miserable" he whispers to me in my ear).

Soup can only help can't it? Plus it's vegetables.

I came across this recipe last year. I can't remember where from but when I feel better I will attempt to find out because it makes me REALLY CROSS when people don't credit recipes and say "oh here is my recipe for XYZ". I know recipes are all nicked from somewhere anyway, but as a professional writer, I care very much about the value of words. If you know where something comes from, sodding credit it you teef.

So this isn't my recipe although I've adapted it to suit my own selfish means. I've adapted it in a very small way, because I'm just not that clever to do a handbrake turn with a recipe and completely reinvent it.

This is what you need:

A butternut squash, it really doesn't matter what the size is since they're all bred nowadays to be 'supermarket size' anyway. Peel it, which is a bastard job, and cut it into chunks. I cut it into chunks and then peel it, actually.
4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped 
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of garam masala
1-2 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes(one gives it a nice warmth, two a kick, I've not tried more than that. The original recipe calls for three dried whole chillies which you cook with the squash, then take out two of them before the blending stage. I used dried cos we always have in)
6 garlic cloves, peeled
600ml chicken stock - made with a cube, for goodness sake. I'm all for chicken broth made from proper dead chickens when you're using it as the actual stuff you're eating, for pastina in brodo for instance but when you're chucking it into a soup, a cube is just fine. I use Kallo organic cos it makes me feel better.
400ml coconut milk (the original said 200ml, but all the coconut  milk I find comes in 400ml tins and if you use 200ml you end up wasting the other 200ml. I think this is a shame, so I use the whole tin, it makes for a slightly creamier soup, but since when was that a bad idea? The point is, if you have a use for the other 200ml of coconut milk, use less and tell me what that use is).
Juice of one lime (not essential, so don't panic if you don't have it, but it adds a nice taste and has useful vitamin C).

Preheat oven to 200C.

Take 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, put in a small receptacle and into that put your spices and chilli. Mix around and then drizzle over the squash. Put it in the oven for 20mins. After 20 mins scatter over the garlic and cook for another 10 mins, after which the squash should be lovely and squashy and soft, if not give it a bit more.

Whilst that is doing, use the other two tablespoons of oil to soften the onion. Do it with the lid on. You want lovely transparent onion, all soft and relaxed, not mean and burned and angry.

Scrape the squash and all the spicy bits into a blender. Add the onion. Pour in a bit of the chicken stock so that it's easier to blend the whole lot up. Blend it up. Brr brr brrr so that the whole lot is thick and velvety and GOOD.

Put into a pan, add the rest of the stock and the coconut milk. Heat it up, add lime juice, season if you want to (I never do, stock cubes have so much sodding seasoning already) eat it and think of nice autumn things and what you want for Christmas.

This just isn't the most interesting picture, I mean, it could be custard. But I forgot to take a pic at any other, more photogenic point in making it. What would have been ideal is a picture of someone in knitted fingerless gloves, nursing a mug of this and wearing slouchy socks, kinda Toast-catalogue styley. Although nursing these days means a different thing to me, so I mean: holding the mug, not breastfeeding it.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Gobbledegook stamp

I first came across this when I was writing a piece for the Guardian's Education supplement about What to Take With You to University. Which I researched heavily because I never went. I was far too busy joining the army and learning how to strip down my personal weapon (a Sterling Sub-Machine gun, bullet capacity: 32, although only a numbskull would load it with anymore than 28) in my "noddy suit" (NBC suit - nucleur, biological, chemical suit) in a gas chamber with actual tear gas being pumped in. And interrogate people. And pick locks. And avoid assault courses.

So, to get to the point. You know how everyone is so obsessed with not getting their identity stolen theseadays? How you must shred everything that has any personal information on it whatsoever? Well, this is easy to do if you have an industrial shredder attached to a belt around your waist and have something you can do with the shredded paper (you can't recycle it), such as keep a rabbit or a gerbil or run a mail order business (you can use if for packing, although be aware if you use a strip shredder - one which shreds paper into long strips - it is theoretically possible to piece together a document again, better to go for a cross-shredder).  But otherwise, it can mean you end up with lots of bits of paper hanging around for the mythical day when you lug the top-heavy shredder out from under the desk, plug it in, and shred everything you've saved up.

Obviously, you should shred bank statements (and wow, what's that like, to not keep bank statements??) and just about anything if you're Andy Coulson. But lots of things just need you to obliterate your name and address.

This is where the Gobbledegook Stamp (be aware this is the name I have given it) comes in. When I first featured it, Lakeland had just started stocking it (some of the reviews for it on the Lakeland site are not promising, saying you have to 'stamp over the address a few times', well der, yes, big deal?). They weren't sure they'd carry on stocking it and I had to grapple with them slightly to let them let me feature it: it's now a best seller. You just happily stamp over your personal details and then put the letter in the recycling as per. You can get replacement ink pads for it at any stationers although I've not had to replace mine yet.

And with just over 100 days til Christmas, it'd make a very unglamorous little gift for someone paranoid in your life.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Chocolate Ganache Hot Chocolate

I was going to write about Fruit Leathers aka Fruit Roll ups. But I just can't be bothered. It's too cold (at least where I am, which is in Suffolk) to write about blackberries and fruit stuff.

Instead I want to write about hot chocolate.

I've never been satisfied with commercially available hot chocolate mixes. My dad, in his coffee shop that he used to have, used to make the most exquisite hot chocolate - made with Cadbury's Hot Chocolate syrup which you couldn't buy it in the shops.  Cadbury's has stopped making it now anyway. My dad would make me a cup of half hot milk with the syrup and half 'schiuma' - what you English call 'foam'. It was the best ever hot chocolate and has never, really, been beaten. I'm guessing that if I tasted it now I'd think it was really sweet. But memories, and all that..

For a long time, in the absence of Mr Cadbury's syrup, the way I'd make hot chocolate was by heating up some milk with some 70% cocoa content chocolate in it, then whisking it all up. It would be dark, rich and not too sweet.

When I was out and I could get it (and you can't here in Suffolk, please could you open up a branch Antonio), I'd drink Carluccio's Cioccolata Fiorentina, which is served in espresso cups and is dark and custard-thick. It's delicious - I urge you to try it if you are ever in a Carluccio's. You can buy the powder to recreate this drink at home, but it's hard to replicate what they do in the shop and to have any hope of success you need to make it in large quantities. Also, don't look at the ingredients as it will put you off.

But the idea of a small cup of something that really hits the spot appeals. I've never been a fan of large, mediocre drinks: small and potent is what I'm after.

Last year my youngest daughter was baptised. For the cake part of the party, I made lots of chocolate cupcakes using Nigella Lawson's recipe (Nigella Domestic Goddess p.168). The icing was chocolate ganache - chocolate melted with cream (I don't really do sugar or buttercream icing, I mean, it's nice, for the first mouthful but then it leaves you in a diabetic coma). Nigella's recipe always makes more ganache icing than you could possibly ever pour onto the cupcakes (as it is, the  icing is a good centimetre thick), but I always make the amount she recommends because I live in fear of my cupcakes one day going naked cos I skimped. On this occasion I had plenty left over, so I kept the rest in the fridge.

(For those interested, I topped the cupcakes with an orange wafer rose from Jane Asher. The effect - orange on a glossy dark brown cupcake in brown paper holders - was smart and sleek which is just what I wanted).

As the party wore on, some die-hards remained. It was October and the evening air was fairly fresh and I fancied hot chocolate. I looked at my now set-solid chocolate ganache in the fridge. I wondered what would happen if I melted it again, added some hot milk and whizzed it up with my Aerolatte frother wand-thing.

It made hot chocolate that was so superb that everyone commented on it, even though by that stage they were fairly tipsy and deep in conversation. Everyone said it was the best hot chocolate they'd ever tasted, even those I didn't get in an arm lock.

I served it in little ceramic cups so you got just a few mouthfuls, which is all you'd want as it's imaginably rich...

Chocolate Ganache Hot Chocolate

I've adapted this from Nigella's original recipe as otherwise you'd be drinking it for a week...

90g 70% cocoa chocolate (I use Waitrose Continental - which comes in a black, rather unassuming wrapper - it's very good)
40g milk chocolate (I use Green and Black's as it's a higher percentage cocoa than most milk chocolates, but I don't use its plain chocolate as I don't like it as much as Waitrose's)
100ml double cream
a few drops of vanilla extract (about quarter of a teaspoon).
Milk to suit

Melt the milk and dark chocolate with the cream. You can do it straight in a pan but you may feel safer doing it in a bowl, above a pan of boiling water. Stir until melted.

You should have a very thick mixture. Warm up some milk separately, then carefully and slowly add it to the chocolate/cream mixture. What you're aiming to do is loosen up the ganache, but you don't want to add so much milk that you change it into a really runny mixture. You want to end up with something that's thick: so thick you could eat it off a spoon, but is still drinkable.

Look, no-one said this was going to be easy. If you want a normal, easy to make hot chocolate drink, get any old shit from the supermarket. This is proper stuff that will warm your body and your soul because it requires a bit of care in the making.

It will be worth it.

If you need to homogenise the mixture, you can whisk it up. I use my Aerolatte whizzer thing.

Serve in small espresso cups. If you don't want to use all the mixture, just refrigerate it before you add the milk; and if you don't end up eating it straight out of the fridge with a spoon, just melt it down and add warm  milk and whisk it up like that. This way you can actually make just one cup at a time.

Enjoy it. It's good.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

How to change the rings on your iPhone so that it doesn't go to voicemail really fast and then you run up a bill made up largely of just ringing in to your answering service..

...and other stories.

In the old days, before God had made light, I used to have Nokia phone. You could change how many times it rang before it went to the answering service really easily.

You went into Phone Settings and there it was.

Not so the iPhone. It comes pre-programmed to go to voicemail pretty fast. I mean, not so fast that you can't get to it if you're just sitting there staring at your iPhone, which I know some people do. But if you are a busy person, like what I am, and have children and a job and a life, then you often don't get to it just in time.

I think this is a conspiracy between Apple and phone companies, so you have to ring in to your voicemail more than you'd like, which (unless you are lucky enough to have an older plan where it's part of the package) means you make calls outside of your call plan and pay more etc etc.

Anyway, for those that don't know*, here is how to change it so that your iPhone rings for as long or as little as you want.

It doesn't appear as if you can make it go for longer than 30 seconds before it goes to voice mail. Such a conspiracy!

*and if you knew, why didn't you share?
** this worked great for me on my 3GS/T-mobile. If you're going to do this then do it at your own risk!