april recipe spring-clean

Goodness me, it’s nearly June, and I’m hurriedly writing up April’s recipe challenge so that you won’t notice the short time-lag when I smoothly write up May next week…will you promise not to notice? Pretty please??

I went a little off-kilter for April and, being in the mood for a spring-clean, decided to have a good sort out of all my loose recipes. You know the ones – those you cut out from food publications and supermarket magazines and odd recipe cards and things you’ve picked up from friends. They all sit in a little box on my kitchen windowsill until I get round to making them. Which is usually never. So, instead of cooking from one recipe book, I decided to cook from one recipe box, using up as many of these recipes as possible.

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It was an interesting challenge because, unlike the other months, of course all the recipes were coming from different sources. I found the Co-op magazine to be, largely, brilliant. A fantastically quick, yummy sweet-and-sour marinade for fish, an easy oregano and lemon chicken traybake, decent falafel, and sweet potato pies: a surprisingly flavoursome veggie dinner to add to our repertoire. Pudding-wise, the hot cross bun pudding with salted brandy caramel was immense – a scrumptious combination of everything good about Easter and Christmas cooking.

The Waitrose magazine was a winner too. We enjoyed a quick but delicious one-pot roast chicken supper, Scandinavian chicken, banana and coconut bread ‘n’ butter pudding, and Moroccan meatloaf. The latter fell apart, but I think I know why and it was entirely my fault. All of these I would make again in a flash.

When distant friends visited for an evening, we tried zaalouk, a Moroccan aubergine and tomato dip, with (shop-bought) flatbreads. This recipe had come on a Riverford recipe card, and was definitely one I’d try again with it’s gorgeous flavour combinations and kick of harissa. They also provided us with another curry recipe for our growing portfolio of Indian dishes – this one a lemony chicken and spinach curry with enough flavour for us grown-ups but not too much spice for the littlies. And they encouraged us to use leftover tahini to make a dressing for stir-fried greens. As people who try to avoid salad at all costs, it’s great to have a dressing which works excellently on cooked veg.

Three-cheese soufflés
Photo credit: BBC Good Food magazine

These three-cheese souffles from the wonderful Barney Desmazery at Good Food were SO rich and SO good that you must all follow the link and make them right now. (Or, at least, the next time you need a starter.) Mine looked exactly like the one in the picture.*

From some old Green ‘n’ Blacks packaging, I tried a chocolate sorbet. Unsure whether this would work or not, actually I found it to be a total winner – it may become my new failsafe ‘special’ dessert. Much quicker than making ice cream, and simple enough to be served just with a few berries, the sorbet melts in your mouth and thus turns to something rather like a cold hot chocolate. I cannot explain it better than that – you’ll have to try it to see what I mean. Bring 250ml water and 150g caster sugar to the boil and bubble for 4 minutes. Meanwhile, melt 100g dark chocolate, then add 100ml water to the sugar syrup and whisk in the cocoa, then the melted chocolate. Freeze. It will make enough for 4 (or 1 with relationship problems).

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All these recipes have made it into my recipe scrapbook, to be enjoyed again in the future. Those that didn’t include beer doughnuts (yes, really), Co-op fruit ‘n’ nut brownies (standard problem of bad brownies: too dry and cakey) and hummus. I’m sorry, but I don’t get on well with homemade hummus, as long-standing blog readers will remember from a Sabbath week disaster two years ago. I’ve tried at least three different recipes, none of which have turned out anything close to edible, and life is too short to try a fourth when there are absolutely NO PROBLEMS with supermarket hummus. There, I’ve said it. Just call me a food slob.

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* I’m sorry I’ve been rubbish at providing any photos since this challenge began. I’m not in the habit of photographing food but resolve henceforth to remember. Failing that, I’ll continue to provide professional food pictures, so that you can imagine I live a life of immaculate presentation.

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fantasy v reality

I was so thrilled to bring Jo Pratt’s marvellous ‘Madhouse Cookbook‘ to your attention recently – it’s clearly a book which is needed in more households than just mine, and I’m delighted that several of you have ordered it since seeing it on here. (And, if you haven’t, it’s currently just £3 if you follow the link above – practically a steal.) But now it’s time to bring you up to speed on my other challenge for 2015 – reading a book a month.

The two novels I’ve read recently look pretty different, on the face of it. They’re both set in the 1800s, and they both straddle England and America, but the subject matters couldn’t be further apart. Erin Morgenstern’s ‘The Night Circus’ is a romantic, magical fantasy – that wonderful sort of escapist writing which teeters on the edge of believable and then snatches you away on a dream-cloud, where you have simply no choice but to trust the characters and situations. The story is of a pair of illusionists and the incredible ‘circus’ in which they operate – and, beyond that, I really can’t tell you any more for fear of spoiling it for you. Suffice to say, it’s a tale full of colour, imagination, magic, romance and life, and is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read.

By contrast, ‘The Last Runaway‘ (Tracy Chevalier), deals with the hardened, gritty realism of 1850s America – the slave trade, the Underground Railroad, quilts, whiskey and Quakerism. A young British Quaker girl finds herself in Ohio, unable to return to England, but with no family or identity in America. She starts to build her life around the strong convictions she has, starts to find a voice for her beliefs. This book taught me so much about America in the 1850s – and the British opinion of Americans back then. I loved getting to know Honor Bright, the heroine, and felt every emotion along with her.

One novel is fantasy, one is reality. But perhaps the two are more similar than they first appear. They both pick up the theme of running away – from situations, circumstance, and the expectations of others. Both books are, essentially, about individuals trying to break away from the life which is being dictated to them, and follow their hearts instead.

I love that two such different books can have this common thread. And in life, held together by the common thread of our own existence, we need a healthy balance of fantasy and reality as well. Too much fantasy, and we become useless to those around us, unable to function in community or relate to others. Too much reality and we lose our ability to imagine, to dream, to hope. My life has certainly been a good mix of the two recently – the gritty, hard stuff sitting alongside the joyful stuff that elevates me – and I hope yours has been too.

on giving away – and letting go

It’s Amy’s fault.

As soon as she mentioned she was doing a 40bags challenge for Lent (giving away one bag of Stuff each day during Lent), that was it – I was hooked. Like Amy, my motivation was largely selfish, excited about the excuse to de-clutter all the Randomness which quickly builds up in our home, but I also sensed that sorting through our possessions on such a large scale would also be spiritually cleansing.

As you’ll know by now, I didn’t achieve this challenge in 40 days. (Why stick to 40, when 60 is so much more…expansive?) So now, more than a month after Easter, here’s what I learnt from my Lent challenge.

The first two bags were filled in about 20 minutes one afternoon before the school run. The ease at which I could release these possessions both relieved and disgusted me – relief from the sense that I was holding lightly to what I own, but disgust from just how easy it was to identify superfluous goods.

I gave away some classic books – and, with these, gave away the notion that I will ever be the sort of person who will read a book twice.

I gave away my academic texts which look impressive on our bookshelves – and let go of the need to look intellectual when people visit our home.

I encouraged my children to fill a bag with their toys – and, as their non-materialistic selves happily made a pile of things they didn’t want, I let go of my overwhelming urge to cautiously rein in their generosity, knowing that to do so would be to point them towards the path of Consumerism.

I gave away the beautiful, soft maroon suit I bought for my first job – and, with this, let go of the need to define myself by what I used to do.

I gave away my favourite ever boots, which have long been unwearable – and let go of the idea that they could ever mean more to me than simple foot coverings.

I threw away food which has been around longer than my children. Cornflour pushed to the back of the cupboard, pomegranate seeds I will never use, ready-made icing – hardened and unforgiving. I threw it away – and let go of the guilt I’m wired to feel when throwing away food.

It scares me how much of my identity is wrapped up in what I own. But, this Spring, I untangled myself a little from the complex relationship I have with my Stuff. Perhaps, instead, I will find a little more of my identity in Christ.

 

retirement, already? think: retiresavvy!

I’ll be honest. Retirement is not something that regularly enters my mind. When DesertDad and I decided that I would take a career break to care for our kids, we did it on the basis of being afford to live on one salary now – not in retirement. We calculated the income difference (virtually nothing, since I’d supported DD for the three years leading up to having our first child) – but we didn’t calculate the impact of me not paying into a pension plan for several years.

Added to this, pensions have always been a tricky discussion point in our household. As Christians, we’re always trying to negotiate the careful balance between Trusting God and Being Sensible. How much security is too much? How much should we trust God to provide for our futures – and how much is He providing for them right here, right now? Should we aim for financial independence, or mutual support from the church family?

Skipton Building Society has realised that there are many people floundering like me when it comes to pensions, and has put together an excellent online resource called retiresavvy. It’s not just designed for older people – although has plenty of information and guidance for those nearing retirement (as well as those already there) – but is aimed at younger people too. There are some great articles written by young parents, which take into account how hard it is to pay into a pension fund whilst also raising a family, with reduced income and increased expenditure. If you fit into this demographic, I’d seriously encourage you to take a look at this part of the site in particular – I found it tremendously useful.

There’s also plenty of up-to-date information on the latest changes to pensions. For example, I discovered that, to receive a full State Pension, you have to have been making National Insurance contributions for 35 years – but also that “you continue to accrue National Insurance contributions towards your State pension if you’re not working for a period but claiming Child Benefit, right up until your child reaches the age of 12″. Phew! I love that retiresavvy doesn’t come across as simply one huge advertisement for Skipton but, on the whole, gives sensible, impartial advice.

None of the website is patronising, dismissive or spoken in financial jargon. The info is there – plus lots of interesting articles on all aspects of getting older – and you can make up your own mind on what you need. I can read it in the light of my existing questions about retirement, and not feel like it compromises my faith.

The portal has been created so that you pick an area you’re interested in (e.g. ‘Retirement planning for families’ or ‘Keeping busy in retirement‘) and then select from a number of interesting posts written within that field. This took a little while to get used to – initially I was looking for some straightforward menus which would take me directly to one piece of information – but, as I spent a bit more time navigating the portal, I found the multi-faceted approach more interesting. It gives you a much broader perspective on retirement, so that whilst you leave the website feeling more informed, you certainly don’t feel like you’ve been to the Headteacher’s office for a Good Telling Off.

From the moment I heard about retiresavvy, I was excited to try it out, but have to say I was a little disappointed in the appearance when I first visited the site. Given that Skipton are trying to entice younger people to use the portal to think about their futures, I do feel that the Homepage could look a little brighter, a little more fun, perhaps with a few more photos (and not just of people in their 60s). Also, the helpful little video – which can be found if you scroll down the Homepage – should really be higher up, as it’s a useful first-port-of-call. However, the font and pictures are great, and the overall layout feels good: the right balance of information and white space. There’s also a forum – great for asking questions or contributing to the ongoing, complex discussion of retirement. Articles are the right length and tone – and generally this is a very helpful resource, which just needs some minor tweaking, I feel, to give it maximum impact.

Having goals in life is important in retirementOver to you: are you a younger person thinking about retirement? Or an older person relieved that you did think about it in advance? How should we be stewarding our money wisely, now and in the future?

I was asked to review retiresavvy.skipton.co.uk by Skipton and the Mumsnet Bloggers Network. All views are my own. I was entered into a prize draw to win vouchers as a token of thanks for blogging. View other blogs on this topic here: http://www.mumsnet.com/ bloggers/retiresavvy-portal- what-our-bloggers-thought-