5 reasons I’m grateful not to own a home

hiking.jpgOne of the perks of being married to a vicar is free accommodation.

If I’m honest, the insecurity of not owning our own property has started to bug me over the last couple of years. I won’t say it ‘concerns’ me or ‘worries’ me, because I have no reason not to trust that God will provide everything we need in the future. But it does bug me.

As friends move on to their second, third, fourth property, gradually moving up the ladder, gaining space, building extensions and increasing their investment, we live fairly comfortably in a house which won’t be there when my husband retires. I sometimes wonder if we should be living on more of a shoestring than we do, and paying off a mortgage on a tiny holiday property somewhere in the sticks.

We did own a house, once. In fact we were amongst the first of our friends to buy a place, thanks mainly to the fact that we’d moved to the North and could afford something small. But when we relocated, we rented the property for a year then sold it. It didn’t seem right to keep it, as it wasn’t a natural rental property – but nor did it seem right to purchase a different property elsewhere.

It was the hubs who felt strongly about not re-investing in property. I wasn’t convinced at first, but after a fair bit of submitting the issue to God, I came to the same conclusion. And we still have no regrets about what we did (or didn’t do). But that doesn’t make it an easy decision to live with!

However, to counter any jealousy I may feel when others are moving into gorgeous homes, to which they can do whatever they like, I thought I’d write down five things to be grateful for about our situation – not with gritted teeth, but because I’m convinced this is where God wants us, and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). I’m trying to practise this truth!

We don’t pay maintenance costs.

While we cover the costs of the garden and (most) interior decor, all the essential maintenance is sorted out by the Diocese. If the boiler breaks, we don’t have to worry about finding the money to fix it. If there’s a leak, we don’t have to spend ages ringing round companies that might be able to come and sort it out immediately.

Sometimes there’s a tension between what we think is urgent, and what the Diocese thinks is urgent – but, on the whole, one call to their housing people, and things are sorted out pretty efficiently.

We get to live in a house that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

Vicarages have to have at least four bedrooms, plus two reception rooms (so that one can be a study – a vicarage is a work-place as well as a home). They tend to be generously-sized.

Not only would we not be able to afford the size of this house if we were in different jobs, but we also wouldn’t be able to afford the location of this house. While we’re not in a particularly affluent area, the fact that it only takes 15 minutes to walk into the city centre whacks on another few thousand to the value of our home.

Another advantage specific to our home is that houses like ours just don’t exist in our area. Usually if you want to be close to town, you sacrifice a garden. Or you move out of town to get a garden – and sacrifice convenience. We are fortunate to get both.

Obviously not all vicarages are exactly like ours, but they will all have their unique quirks and advantages which add value – value which most of us wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.

It’s a constant reminder that our home belongs to God.

If you’re a Christian, everything you are and have belongs to God. But how easily we can slip into selfish ways with our homes, our money, our possessions and our families!

I totally do this all the time with the things I own and the people I love. But one thing I’m not so selfish with is our home. A vicarage is owned by the Diocese, and it’s supposed to be used to bless your church.

Whether it’s New Year drinks to say thank you to the people who lead at church, our weekly parents’ house group and creche, or (yet another) World Cup barbecue with the 20s group, our family has a wonderful opportunity to live in a space which is designed to bless others. How cool is that?!

(For the record, yes there are boundaries that need to be set, and we take these seriously. After all, we’ve been through the adoption process, where we had to justify the use of our home from a safeguarding perspective. But that’s another blog post!)

It helps us to empathise with those around us.

Many of the people we see regularly at the school gate, at church, or round and about, don’t own their own home – and, whilst some of these people are hoping to buy in the future, many won’t even entertain this notion, as there’s absolutely no way they’ll ever have a chance to get on the housing ladder.

It’s tempting to think that owning a home is a right, but actually it’s a luxury, and it’s only enjoyed by a minority across the world. Even in the UK, it was only 40-50 years ago that people started to buy homes en masse. Renting a property owned by someone else has generally been the way that people kept a roof over their head throughout history.

Not owning a home, and realising the many, many people around us who don’t own one either, reminds us that it’s a luxury. If we ever do buy a home, we certainly won’t take it for granted.

We have more security than many.

And finally, whilst in many ways we’re in a similar situation to those around us, we’re also very different. We have earning potential. We have savings. We have financial support from our families. We’re in a much more secure position than many, and may one day have the option of buying a home.

Again, not owning a home reminds us of the great security we do have: a landlord who’s not about to kick us out with a month’s notice. A decent place to live which is kept in good order. A guarantee that we can live here until the hubster’s job ends. And that, when it does, we’ll have another home provided for us.

Compare this to friends living in social housing with no proper flooring, private-rentals with dodgy landlords, or in communities which are unfriendly and antisocial, and we feel pretty grateful.

I won’t pretend this is an easy journey, but it’s the one the Lord has us on for now. Maybe He will guide us to buy a house in the future or maybe we’ll spend our retirement renting, but one thing I know for sure is that His ways are best.

We don’t get to take our homes to heaven, after all!

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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.

madhouse march (it’s another GIVEAWAY!!)

I’m the first to admit that this blog is not a very useful one. I don’t teach you how to braid Afro hair, give you numerous recipes for gluten-free vegans, explain some complicated piece of computing, or provide numerous rainy-day activities for hyperactive preschoolers.

If you’re new to the blog and haven’t yet sussed the vibe, it is this: I witter on about something or other for around 800 words and people read it and sometimes comment and then get on with their lives regardless. This blog does not change lives.

But, dear friends, now I want to repay you for your loyalty and commitment to my various rants. This blog is about to change your life. Get ready for it: I am about to share with you my one biggest secret to organising your family’s meals forever. Some of you may remember that way back in the distant past of January 2015, I made a resolution to cook from a different cookbook each month. Hands-down, the best and most practical family cookbook I have ever come across is the one I was lucky enough to cook from throughout March.

Madhouse Cookbook

Madhouse Cookbook, by Jo Pratt, is a pretty apt book for me – the fact that I’m writing up what I did in March when it’s nearly May should be evidence enough that we qualify under the ‘madhouse’ moniker. I have two kids to feed, as well as a husband with an odd working schedule and a lodger with an aversion to lamb, fish and meat-on-the-bone – not to mention sundry others who pop in, sometimes planned and invited, sometimes unplanned, sometimes uninvited, but always welcome. There has to be food on the table by 6pm (or else our kids will flip) and there has to be enough to feed whoever God may bring to our door that day. Jo Pratt’s recipes are flexible, child-friendly, quick, easy and yummy. I’m telling you: buy this book. It will change your life. (Get to know Jesus first though – He will change your life more. But, after that, buy this book.)

What makes this book stand out? First, nearly every recipe is pure gold in terms of flavour. Quite outstanding. From Chinese to Mexican to Italian to Indonesian, Jo Pratt has produced a stellar selection of meals which will give your kids a hugely varied diet without them even realising, whilst the grown-ups enjoy food that is in no way ‘dumbed down’. Second, there are virtually none of those recipes that you might just throw together yourself with no need for guidance. (I always get so disheartened flicking through a recipe book and seeing titles such as ‘tomato and courgette pasta’ or ‘roast chicken with garlic’ – why pay good money for recipes you don’t need?) Those few recipes which do fit this category are briefly summarised in categories, e.g. ‘Very, Very, Very Quick Pasta Dishes’ or ‘Stir Crazy’, a collection of stir-fry sauces.

Third, the book is just so comprehensive. Section one is ‘Monday to Friday survival: the need for speed’ – and it does what it says on the tin. Quick recipes, yummy flavours, great for kids and adults alike. We loved the Very Special Fried Rice, the Chicken, Cheese and Corn Quesa-d-easies and the Mediterranean Baked Chicken and Rice – all great, none of them time-consuming. We regularly use Jo’s Risotto Primavera recipe – sometimes following to the letter, sometimes varying with whatever veg we have to hand, always scrummy. Section two is ‘The Busy Weekend’ – great (but still quick) recipes to improve your weekend, from lazy brunch ideas, to baking-with-kids projects, to relaxed family meals. The Sticky Sausages with Sweet Potatoes and Peppers is a work of genius – 15min prep, then bang in the oven for an hour. Rich Vegetable Lasagne was a winner too. (And did I mention that we found plenty of new vegetarian recipes to suit our half-vegetarian diet?) Section three is ‘Cling on to your social life’ – a selection of slightly smarter recipes for when friends come round. But of course nothing takes ages to make because Jo realises you have Kids Who Are Not Tired to put to bed and All The Chaos to clear away and Unidentifiable Hardened Food to scratch off the dining table – in addition to cooking for your guests. The Beef Rendang and South Indian Chicken Curry were amazing, and the Chocolate and Ginger Brownies were so good I made them three times in one week. (Beach-ready body? Er…)

Add to all this the accurate preparation and cooking times, guidance on how many adults/kids the meal will feed, ingredients lists which don’t require a trip to a specialist deli, and plenty of tips for leftovers or how to vary the meals for fussy eaters – and you’re left with an incredible resource, not only for family life but for anyone who likes to cook. Honestly, if you want decent recipes which don’t take long to prepare, buy this book, whether or not you have kids, a spouse, a lodger, or a dog – and prepare to weep over its sheer ease and yum factor.

But don’t buy the book just yet. Because I think it’s such an invaluable aid to anyone’s cooking repertoire, I’m going to give away a copy to a commenter picked at random this Saturday at 7pm (OK, you know that this means sometime during Sunday or Monday…). This time I’d like you to comment on the most mad thing you’ve ever cooked. I once made a Marmite, sweetcorn and squid sandwich. Fire away.

THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED. CONGRATULATIONS TO CHARLOTTE WHO WAS THE LUCKY WINNER!!

january with james

Before you go thinking that I’ve gone and got myself another man for 2015, let me bring you back onto the track of my actual 2015 resolutions, one of which was to cook from a different cook book each month. January was the month of James Martin. So, yes, I did enjoy another man for a month, but not in the way you thought.

Slightly awkward introduction over, what did I learn this month? I’ve set myself this challenge in order to widen my cooking repertoire and decide which cookbooks are worth keeping. Did this book break my cooking rut? Is it a keeper or a bleeper?

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I think this book was a Christmas present a few years ago. The burnt cover might suggest it has been well-used – but, in actual fact, I think we’ve only tried one or two recipes. The rest of the time, the book appears to have been used as a rather unsuccessful trivet. So, with ‘comfort food’ written all over it, what better month to try this book than cold, unforgiving January?

The food, the bad and the ugly

Caramelized braised beef, with a strong flavour of balsamic, was a hit with all of us, as an alternative to a traditional roast. We cooked the Paillard of Chicken – cooked chicken breasts topped with mozzarella, Italian ham, sage, and chutney – when friends came for dinner, and it had that great appeal of being both easy to cook and special to eat. The Roast Cod with Smoked Garlic and Vanilla Mash was a revelation – not the cod, which I often find rather flavourless, but the idea of adding vanilla to mash, which I’ll certainly do again.

Believe it or not, I was keen to try the Calves’ Liver with Port-flavoured Pan Juices. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but we used to eat liver fairly regularly prior to having the kids, and felt now was the time to educate them. Perhaps it was that the butcher only had pigs’ livers available – but this recipe ended up a little more mediocre than one might have expected. Not awful, just mediocre. I would give the same rating to the Chicken with Plum- and Sun-dried Tomatoes.

I wasn’t surprised that a Yorkshire-born batchelor chef hadn’t included a Vegetarian section – but, as we try to eat veggie food three or four nights a week, I had to look a bit more closely to find any ideas on this. The search was rewarded with a few dishes which could easily make it into our regular repertoire: one, beer-battered red pepper fritters – incredibly quick and easy, but very scrummy. I think they were meant as a starter or snack, but padded out with some chips and lots of veg (because, try as I might, I couldn’t really justify deep-fried veg as being one of our 5-a-day), they proved a more-than-adequate evening meal. The next day I used leftover batter to fry some courgettes, and they worked well too.

Another unlikely veggie main course was a Rustic Tomato, Bread and Basil Soup – thickened the Italian way with chunks of ciabatta, and cooked in white wine, it made a very hearty and tasty main course. Then there were a couple of veggie pizzas – red onion and creme fraiche (a combination I’d never have dreamt up in a million years, but surprisingly good), and anchovy and rosemary. OK, so this one isn’t strictly veggie. But you could change the toppings easily – the main difference here was that the pizza was made on a ciabatta, sliced horizontally. A quick and easy solution to home-made pizza when there’s no time to make a base.

Besides the main dishes, I tried a lovely Olive Focaccia with Rosemary Oil – which worked brilliantly in the bread machine – and several puddings. The Banana Tarte Tatin was good, but I always find these a bit of an unnecessary faff, so not sure I’d try it again. The Lemon and Goat’s Cheese Tart divided those who tried it, and the Hot Walnut Tart was only average, like the Lemon, Pine Nut and Brown Breadcrumb Cheesecake. However, everyone who tried the Chocolate Ginger Cheesecake and the White Chocolate, Whisky and Croissant Butter Pudding (served alongside each other at a Sunday lunch gathering) agreed that they were keepers. The latter sounds sickly, but no, it really worked!

Is it a keeper?

For a restaurant chef, James Martin’s recipes – many of them, at least – have been pared down to dishes that are easy to cook. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how little time some of them took to put together – useful for a weeknight, which is when most of my cooking happens.

But there are also quite a few recipes in this book which feature ingredients that would take a lot of effort to source – duck and game, random fish and specific brands of goat’s cheese, for example. Not to say you shouldn’t bother with these ingredients every so often, but the amount of these sorts of recipes in the book didn’t really tally with the ratio of how often you’re likely to cook them. Which was a shame, as it means that the book isn’t quite as crammed full of helpful recipes as I’d like it to be. However, there’s enough food in here that I’m likely to crave miserably if I give the book away – so, on that note, it’s a keeper!

the ministry of a messy house – a review and giveaway

One of my goals for 2015 is to read a book a month. I promised to review them all here, so here’s number one. And before you go patting me on the back for being ahead of schedule, this was actually a book I started in the tail-end of 2014. I have another book on the go for January – and, don’t worry, I’ll definitely be behind schedule in finishing it. Reassured that it’s still me? That I haven’t been taken over by a super-efficient ghost-blogger? Great.

The book I read was…

…”The ministry of a messy house” by Amanda Robbie. My wonderful cousin Naomi, general fountain of knowledge when it comes to books, especially Christian ones, sent me a copy after reading my hospitality blogs last year. Well, blow my socks off if it didn’t just put me out of a job. Mrs R has all the hospitality know-all I’d love to have, and has helpfully published it in one easy-to-read paperback.

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The ministry of a messy house (in a messy house)

A bit more about the book

On closer inspection, however, I discovered it wasn’t just a book about hospitality, although that’s a recurrent theme from start to finish, and there are plenty of tips and suggestions and perceptive theological links. This is a book about ‘mess’ in all its forms: relationships, church, kids, food, homes. So, even if you have a spotless home, this book will teach, challenge and inspire. Its starting point is that we’re all ‘messy’, and what we have to offer is flawed and not always high-quality. But when we offer it to God through offering it to others, He does something special with it.

Now that is a very simplistic summary – but if I went into more detail, there’d be no point in buying it, right?

What I most appreciated was…

…the humour and reality of it all. Also the fact that the author is married to a vicar, like me. Her homelife bears so many similarities to ours, that I found this fascinating reading – especially given that they’re a few years ahead of us. It was encouraging to see how things had worked themselves out in their lives, and to be reminded of why we do what we do.

Here’s a proper pic of the book so you know what you’re looking for when you rush over to your favourite online bookseller directly after reading this review:

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You’ll enjoy this book if…

…you want something comfortably easy-to-read, radically practical and Biblically truthful. There are pearls of wisdom scattered throughout, and whilst I wouldn’t say that the whole tome was full of outstandingly original thought, I was certainly kept interested from start to finish.

And the giveaway…

I enjoyed this book enough to want to keep it 🙂 But, since I didn’t have to pay for it in the first place, I’m willing to buy another copy for a giveaway! It’s that good. If you’d like to be in with a chance, please leave a comment here, telling me one of your messy secrets! (Oo-er! I’m talking, like, hiding dirty laundry under the bed or something. If you have something bigger to share, please do it in person with a close friend or psychiatrist. Ta.)

The deadline is Saturday 31st January, 7pm – at which point I’ll put all entrants’ names into a suitable receptacle, and pull out one lucky winner.

And, to kick off, my messy secret is that our bedroom is always messy. The other rooms get prioritised, and somehow the bedroom never makes it onto the cleaning rota before the lounge needs doing again…