Saturday, 28 February 2015

Photo scavenger hunt : February 2015

It's time for the monthly Scavenger Hunt organised by Greenthumb at Made with Love. I can't believe it's the end of February already - the year is flying by! Anyway, here's this month's selection...

Flowers : February's fair maids in my parents' garden. I did a post about snowdrops last year and the brooch I made.

Love : A decopatch decoration on my mantelpiece. You can see the full February theme in my header.

Number : Lots of them. But which direction should we go in?

Something beautiful : A view down the River Ribble.

Your favourite colour : Blue. I drooled over this display in Next.

Bird : Robin Redbreast, who was very obliging and posed patiently while I fumbled around with my camera.

On the road : Buses, cars, vans, taxis and cyclists on Oxford Road in Manchester.

Tap : I was hoping to find something more decorative but this tap in the park was the best I could come up with.

Price : The specials menu at Frankie and Benny's where we went to celebrate the birthday of Chickpea's boyfriend. It's one of our favourite restaurants as we love the atmosphere.

Heart : When I cut open this plum, the 2 sides made perfect heart shapes.

Corner of your house : My kitchen, looking much tidier than usual. I didn't choose the units or tiling - it was like this when we moved in 5 years ago.

Whatever you want : Chinese lanterns decorating St Ann's square in Manchester.

If you'd like to take part, head over to the Scavenger Hunt site where you'll find the categories for March.

Have you got anything nice planned for the weekend? We're heading off to Manchester today to meet up with some friends. Tomorrow, quilting and baking is on the agenda as well as the usual housework necessities. Have a good one whatever your weekend brings. x

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Cookery book challenge: The End

Thirteen months ago, I set off on a quest to make more use of the cookery books in my collection. Each week I would draw out a book and the challenge was to make at least one recipe from it. I started off with 49 books and ended up making 74 recipes, which seems a pretty impressive achievement. I'd safely call the challenge a success!

Poached cod with lentils and salsa verde (Week 25)

It wasn't all plain sailing. Some weeks I just felt fed up of the whole thing or totally uninspired by the book in front of me. I also won't miss having to photograph my food when all I wanted to do was eat. However, for the most part, it was a positive experience. I really enjoyed sharing it with Chickpea and we both had a buzz of excitement each Sunday when we made the draw. It also really stimulated our interest in food throughout the year. So much so that it has inspired Chickpea to want to learn to cook (no comments about whether this has actually translated into action yet...). I also think the challenge was successful because it was realistic - one new recipe a week is achievable.

Equally, I enjoyed rediscovering my book collection. Many of the books were a visual pleasure and a good read too. I do prefer books with photos so that you know what you're aiming at. It also makes it quicker to browse through to choose what to make. Not that the quality of the writing or photography makes any difference to the quality of the recipe.

Mozzarella, mint, nectarine and prosciutto salad (Week 29)

Reading back through my reviews, the most common complaint was that the dish was bland or needed more flavour. I suppose the message there is that taste is very personal and you have to be lighter or heavier with the seasoning and spices depending on your preference. We are clearly on the gutsy flavour side of the fence.

Having mentioned complaints, our experience of the recipes was mostly positive. Of the 74 recipes, 56 were good and only 18 were either bad or, more accurately, indifferent: from the bowl-lickingly delicious to one which was close to inedible.

In time-honoured fashion then, here are some of the best and worst bits.

Bang-Bang chicken (Week 34)

Most popular main ingredient: Chicken. No surprise there and I probably would have put money on it. What did surprise me was that vegetarian dishes were 2nd.  Not that we don't eat vegetarian, just that I hadn't been conscious of choosing so many. Although, if you count up all the types of fish and seafood dishes, that ingredient would have been runner-up.

Fava with meatballs (Week 15)

Most popular region: Mediterranean. Again no surprise. Nor was it a surprise that Far Eastern was runner-up. Despite trying so many cookery books, it seems we haven't been particularly adventurous in our choices!

Warm duck and brown rice salad (Week 4)

Favourite recipe: This was a really tough one and I couldn't choose just one. My top three then, in no particular order were:

Warm duck and brown rice salad (Week 4)
Poached cod with lentils and salsa verde (Week 25)
Thai chicken laksa with a mildly spiced noodle squash broth (Week 41)

Worst recipe: Chicken with egg and lemon sauce (Week 14). Bleurghh. I soldiered on and managed to eat half of this before it hit the bin. Nothing else even came close to winning this title.

Weirdest recipe: Tray-baked chicken Maryland (Week 35). Chicken and banana didn't sound the most promising of combinations but it worked! In general though, meat or fish with fruit is not a combination we like in hot dishes: salads are fine.

So, what next? Well, a couple of the books have already gone to the charity shop but I love books so it was hard to let any of them go: some of them I love for the illustrations and writing if not for the recipes.

Several of you asked if the challenge will continue or if I've given myself a new one. Well, I'll continue to revisit my books as they still have slips of paper marking all the recipes we thought looked interesting. I also decided to take out a year's subscription to BBC Good Food magazine to continue the challenge in a different way: I'm planning to make at least one meal from each issue to make sure I make the most from the subscription (hopefully a lot more than that). I won't be writing about it this time though: I need a break from thinking of 100 ways to say tasty!!!

Thank you for all the comments over the year. I'm glad so many of you enjoyed reading along with the challenge. I'd be interested to know if you decided to have a go yourself or if you made any of the recipes. For now though, it's The End.

See you on Saturday for a different challenge - the Scavenger Hunt. x

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Cookery book challenge: Weeks 45-49

It's taken just over a year but I've reached the penultimate post of my cookery book challenge. I can hardly believe I made it all the way to the end! It felt such an achievement to draw out the final book and I've actually missed having it to look forward to each week. Next time I'll be looking back over the last year but before that, here are weeks 45-49.

Week 45: How to Cook Book 3 - Delia Smith

I've already reviewed Books 1 and 2 which had varying amounts to tempt us and, this time, we were pleased to find several. In fact, I think it was the most interesting of the 3 volumes. We chose 2 recipes and both happened to be in the Waist Watchers chapter.

Oriental chicken

Very simple to make. You prepare a marinade/sauce, pour it over some chicken thighs in a casserole dish and put the whole lot in the oven for 40 minutes. I didn't have Chinese brown rice wine so used sherry which I'd read was a good substitute. Full of flavour though we found it overly salty because of the amount of soy sauce it contains. I'd use a low sodium version next time.

Marinated chicken brochettes with green couscous

My overrriding memory of this meal is wolfing it down as fast as I could. I'd underestimated how long it would take to cook and we were minutes away from needing to leave for the carol service (yes it was back in December - I'm very late with posting). I do also remember it being very tasty though: you can find the recipe here.

Week 46 : North Country Cooking - Dorothy & Bob Igoe

Not the North Country in England that you might assume, but the Adirondacks in New York State, USA. As you might expect, it's full of simple, hearty fare with names like 'Aunt Hattie's clam pie', 'Ted's chilli' and 'Grandma Gregory's pickles'. I love this kind of book - it's so evocative and full of history.

Turkey noodle bake

An easy choice as it happened to be Christmas week and there was plenty of leftover turkey to be had. The other main ingredient is a tin of cream of mushroom soup. I made the recipe exactly as specified but, for me, it needed more seasoning (either that or a better brand of soup). Also, I wasn't sure what kind of 'noodles' they might be but it sounded like a pasta bake so I used penne. You can find a similar recipe here.

Week 47 : Kitchen - Nigella Lawson

I was surprised when this came out as I thought we'd worked our way through all my Nigella books. Well, except for one and it wasn't this!

Vietnamese pork noodle soup

It was the weekend after New Year's Day, and, as you do, I wanted to cook something light and vaguely healthy after all the mountains of mince pies and chocolates: this recipe fit the bill nicely. I omitted the beansprouts, as I'm not keen on them, and added mangetout instead. Gently spicy and flavourful. You can find the recipe here.

Week 48 : How to Eat - Nigella Lawson

This was the book I expected to draw out the previous week. It's not the easiest to browse through as it's very densely written and no photos. I've used a few recipes from it before, including her recipes for Victoria sponge and clementine cake, both of which never fail. However, we chose a savoury recipe. It was only when I uploaded the photo that I realised it's almost identical to the one in the previous week! Actually they were a couple of weeks apart as I had a bout of flu in between, so my memory and powers of observation aren't that bad, honest!

Aromatic chilli beef noodle soup

The basic look of the recipe might be the same but the flavour was very different: ginger, garlic and cinnamon. We were both impressed with this and I'd definitely use the marinade for other recipes. If you'd like to try it, you can find the recipe here.

Week 49 : Real Fast Food - Nigel Slater

And so to the final book of the challenge! This little book is packed with recipes. Like How to Eat, it has no photos but the recipes are clearly marked. I liked that Nigel gives a basic recipe, like an omelette, then a whole series of flavour/filling options. We opted to try a lunch recipe.

Hot kipper toasts

Really tasty and I've made this a couple of times now. The only downside is the bones in the kippers but I've since found skinless and boneless fillets in tins which are much easier. The recipe can be found here.

And that's it, the final recipe, the final review! In time honoured fashion, next time I'll be looking back over the good, the bad and the ugly of the challenge. x

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Ice dancers

Thank you so much for all the lovely comments about my mug hugs: I'm so glad you liked them. One of you mentioned it would be a good project for children and I have something for you today that is quick and easy for all ages.

A few weeks ago whilst waiting for an appointment, I was passing time by browsing through magazines in a shop. As I leafed through Landscape (Jan/Feb 2015 issue), I came across this lovely idea: seeds, leaves, petals and fruit suspended in ice. So beautiful: a perfect snapshot of winter. Of course, I couldn't resist having a go.

To make them you put a thin layer of water in a shallow container - yogurt pots, paper bowls - anything which won't crack when frozen. Arrange your plant material: here I've used Gerbera petals. Put in the freezer. When it's frozen, add just enough water to cover the decoration. Or you can put in all the water at the beginning - either way works as well.

When that's frozen, you need to make a hole for the string. The instructions in the magazine suggest pouring a thin stream of hot water through the ice. I didn't fancy that as my ice catchers were quite small and I didn't want hot water anywhere near my hands! Instead, I heated up a metal skewer over a candle and used that to bore a hole. The ice catcher then went back in the freezer for a little while to firm up as they do melt quite quickly. There's probably a way to create a ready made hole. How about sticking a piece of blu tack on the base of the container and letting the water freeze around it? Worth a go.

Anyway, I made a few versions using what I had to hand.

The flower petal ice catcher was so pretty. The scalloped edge was a complete but lucky fluke. I used a paper bowl (Sainsburys Basics range) and the fluted sides made this lovely pattern.

The second design used slices of lemon.

Next, a square ice catcher with rose buds. 

And lastly, a couple with small flower buds.

I haven't left them outside to melt yet. I think I'll wait until we get a really frosty day so that they'll last a while before they disappear. So simple but so effective.

Magazines can vary so much in the quality of what they contain. This issue of Landscape was a particularly good one as there was lots I wanted to read and try. Here's the start of another project from the same issue using my new toy, a pom-pom maker! I've always used the cardboard ring method before but this is so much easier. Will reveal all when I've made a few more :-)

Then, on Sunday morning, we also tried one of the recipes: oatmeal pancakes. They're more substantial than the usual light and fluffy pancakes but leave you feeling full for longer. I thought they were yummy, particularly with some homemade plum compote.

Tonight we've been enjoying pancakes again for Pancake Day. I managed two: one with maple syrup and the other with traditional sugar and lemon - my favourite. Have you been eating pancakes too? What's your favourite topping?

It's been a glorious sunny day and I'm hoping it will continue for the rest of the week. Enjoy your week whatever the weather brings. x

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Mug hugs

Last week was my quilt group's meeting. Every year the committee put together an annual programme and they're always looking for members to do demos or run workshops. It's a few years since I volunteered so, this time, I offered to run a workshop on mug hugs - a little cosy to keep your tea or coffee warm in the winter.

To give me plenty of time, I asked to be put on towards the end of the year. It therefore came as a bit of a surprise when I found out just before Christmas that I'd been pencilled in for February! I hadn't even made a mug hug at that point. Gulp!

After a few deep breaths, I made a couple of prototypes. The problem with ones you can buy in the shops is that they're usually far too big. They come right up to the rim of your mug so that you get a mouthful of fuzz every time you take a sip. I designed mine to be lower and only provide half a hug - decorative but still cosy.

Originally, I planned to use ribbons as the fastening but they were too fiddly to tie and I thought they'd keep getting in the way of the handle. I'd used loops and buttons on my coffee pot cosy so I tried something similar with hat elastic. Perfect.

As we were going to be sewing during the meeting, the design needed to be simple and able to be sewn by hand in about an hour - well, at least part of it. It was an easy decision to choose felt as the main fabric as it doesn't fray and is nice and woolly and warm.

I played around with a couple of ideas. First was a simple striped design using the stitch and flip method. A strip of rick-rack and more felt tidied up the raw edges. This is my friend's favourite.

Then an even simpler idea with flowers and a fancy trim. The flowers here were ready-made but would be easy to replicate. This was the design I decided to use as I also wanted to make up packs of materials for the group and this was the easier option.

I made up 20 packs with all the materials to make the mug hug: this worked out at about £1 per pack. There was a choice of either pink or purple (the back and the ribbon) and I included 10 different squares of felt so that they could choose which to use for the flowers. The trickiest part was counting out 25 seed beads for each pack - thank goodness for tweezers!

And how did it go? I thought it went really well. I had all my step-by-step samples and some other ideas from magazines and the internet. Everyone seemed interested and they laughed in the right places, always a good sign!

In the end, most people chose to take a pack away rather than sewing during the meeting, though a few did cut out their flowers. I can't wait to see the finished mug hugs next time.

It's such an easy pattern and can be decorated lots of different ways. This is Chickpea's version, all sparkle and bling! If you'd like to make your own, here's how...

Home Jules mug hug

To make a mug hug, you will need:

2 strips of felt, 2.5" x 10"
Scraps of felt for the flowers
25 seed beads
2 x 5" lengths of hat elastic
2 x 10" lengths of ribbon
2 buttons

Make 5 flowers: each flower contains 1 flower shape, 1 small circle, 5 seed beads. If you don't have any beads, you could just use small buttons as in the example below.

Sew the flowers to the grey strip of felt, leaving a 1" space at one end for the buttons and a 1/2" space at the other for the elastic loops.

Sew the grey and coloured strips together along 3 sides, leaving the side for the elastic open.

Make 2 loops with the elastic - make sure the knot is near the end. Insert in the end of the mug hug.

The knot needs to be inserted far enough so that you can sew 2 rows of stitching in front of it. This part is definitely best done on a sewing machine to make sure the elastic is firmly secured.

Sew ribbon along the top and bottom edges. Then sew on the buttons.

Attach to your mug and enjoy! I'd love to see your version if you decide to make one.

It's been a crafting week as it was also the first meeting of a knitting and crochet group at work. Everyone had a great time oohing and ahhing over each other's projects so we're now planning monthly meetings.

I've also been working on another project and will share that with you next time. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. xx