Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Painting my fingers green

I've forgotten if I mentioned in passing that I have two new little fruit trees which arrived in the post about two weeks ago? They were my seasonal present from The Scientist, and I was very excited when they arrived. I'm pleased to announce that they are still hanging on under my irresponsible and slapdash care. Usually it's only the hardiest plants which thrive in our house, but this time I feel that I have to take things seriously. I'm very nervous about giving them the best possible start in life, and also a huge burden of responsibility for their poor little lives. I don’t know how you manage to cope with a real live Munchkin, Kiwi Sis!

Last weekend, after a few days spent in the shed communing with my bike (who I think is probably a bad influence, insubordinate individual that it is), the trees moved into their semi-permanent home on the patio. After reading the instructions sent with them by the nice people at Ken Muir nursery about five times, I went and bought some pots, some stakes, some compost and some slow-release fertilizer, and proceeded to pot them up. Both trees – one apple and one pear – are duo minarettes (not quite the ones in the photo, but similar), so they have two varieties of fruit per tree, and grow in a tall spindly shape. They’re well suited to being kept in pots, which is what I plan to do with them. At the moment they’re in the very corner of the patio against the house, and their stakes are also tethered lightly to the fence for fear of them being blown over. In current conditions they’re in considerably greater danger from rain than frost, but I plan to review their living arrangements every day, and if necessary untie them and move them back in with the bike if it’s getting a bit blowy or frosty (as it's supposed to from tonight, in fact). I may even go and have my lunch with them tomorrow just to make sure they’re not getting lonely.

The pusscats appreciated the return of me tinkering in the garden. Pookie-cam is currently showing a fine-looking specimen of a pook on next-door’s shed roof (piggle was a bit nervous about the camera pointing at her and wouldn’t come out of the bushes). Talking of cats, here is a very funny thing I found the other day.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Lemon meringue cupcakes for Munchkin Granny

Last weekend Munchkin Granny and Eco Sis came to visit to help celebrate Munchkin Granny's birthday. We had a nice day of lunch out, a potter in town, and then some dinner and a play. And, of course, cake. I like a good excuse to bake a cake, so had spent some time going through my collection of recipes. Eventually I settled on some lemon meringue cupcakes from Baking Bites blog. While sometimes a 'throw it together' cake is very satisfying, one which involves a bit more effort is more rewarding when you're making it for an occasion. This recipe had three parts: the cakes, which were a nice easy lemony sponge; the lemon curd, which is always an ego-booster as people are invariably surprised when you've made it yourself; and a meringue topping. Meringues always featured in our childhood Christmases with our grandparents in Brighton, so I have a bit of a soft spot for them. You simply make the cakes, and when they're cooled, pipe in some lemon curd to the centres. I don't have a proper piping bag, but a baking parchment one worked fine. I did both of these stages the day before, and then made the meringue topping, spread it on, and browned it all under the grill just before serving. The meringue made them look a bit special, and they were a real winner on taste, too - really lemony, while the meringue was nice and soft. I halved the mixture and made 9 rather than 18.

This is the cakes before toasting...

...and this is afterwards. Happy birthday Munchkin Granny!

Friday, 25 January 2008

It shouldn't come from a bean #5

The Scientist gets back tonight, and the pussy cats and I are very pleased. I wanted one final episode in the anti-Scientist food log though (Scientist anti-food? What is an anti-food? I suspect it may be celery). When I came across the recipe below, I almost danced with glee, so fitting was it. So, may I present: [inevitable drum roll]…black bean and banana brownie. The Scientist likes black beans. He likes bananas. But the two of them together, in a supposedly sweet treat? I think not. I think he would regard it as a desecration of the name brownie. He would be veritably discombobulated. I was tickled pink. I was directed to this recipe by Lisa, of Unique Little Bits, who was a fellow guest at Stephanie’s blog party last weekend. She came and had a look at my bagel recipe, and we’ve been exchanging emails, which has been very lovely. When I went to look at her blog I discovered that she was a fellow fan of adventures in low-fat brownie baking. She had tried several variations, in what seems to me like an afternoon of heaven, and had eventually had some success with one which featured black beans and bananas. This combination appealed to me for some reason. I like both main ingredients, and I don’t mind having unexpected things in my baked goods. I also liked the fact that the recipe was the product of an ongoing labour of love. Lisa made a few more suggestions, and also pointed me to another version. I followed as many improvements as I could with what I had in the cupboard. Lisa particularly felt that a non-gluten flour would be an improvement. I didn’t have the oat flour the template recipe called for, but I had oats, so I whizzed them up in the blender and used that. Lisa also suggested using some almond meal. I wasn't sure if this was what we call ground almonds, but I gave them a try. I wasn’t keen on the nuts and coconut in the template , so I went down Lisa’s route and left them out. I wanted my black beans and bananas unadulterated. I did add a little bit of oil, as in the original, and stuck with Lisa's use of cocoa (rather than carob), and her cinnamon. The recipe as I tried it is below

The results? Sort of...weird. Consistency-wise they were good - a decent amount of integrity when cut, and certainly not as goopy as some of the earlier reported prototypes had been. I may have used a greater proportion of beans than the recipe called for though, as I hadn't had any canned beans and had had to approximate a can's worth of dried ones (I used 1/2 cup dried). There is apparently a shortage of black beans at the moment - seriously - the guy in our health food shop told me. This is the first time in my adult life I've really been aware of food shortages and price hikes because of adverse weather and environmental conditions. Bread, flour, petrol, black beans... I sort of feel that we deserve to have to pay more for petrol since higher prices are our own fault, but I'm sad about the implications of why basic foodstuffs are going up. Having spent most of this week preparing for a lecture on the plague in the seventeenth century, the notion of being punished for our own actions seems strangely familiar.

Anyway, the brownies. Consistency notwithstanding, it was the texture and the taste which I found a little odd. I don't think I would have been able to identify either black bean or banana if I hadn't known, but there was a definite 'bean paste' quality to the texture. It wasn't exactly unpleasant, just odd, and I thought they could have done with being a little sweeter. They were, however, lovely and moist, with a dense cocoa-y-ness. I did put one in the fridge and tried it later, and enjoyed it much more. I don't know if it firmed up a bit more, or whether the taste improved for being chilled, or whether I knew what to expect more. Either way, while I might not make them again to this exact recipe, I will happily eat the rest at some stage (they're stashed in the freezer so as not to scare The Scientist). However, I can see why the improvement process becomes so appealing. I am already pondering how to improve my version - definitely lower the bean presence a little, and perhaps up the sugar a wee bit. I couldn't really taste the cinnamon either, so I'd add more of that, too. They definitely weren't exactly a 'snap' to make my way, since the beans needed soaking and cooking, but as usual, I just did it by stages while working at home. And did I mention they're vegan?

So there we go, the finale of my beany week (with thanks to Lisa!). It's been fun trying out some new recipes, and getting free rein in the kitchen. I would let The Scientist have a go for a week in return, but I think I'd just be eating mash every night! In the meantime, I'm making concessions to his tastes: welcome home Scientist.

Black bean and banana brownie (with thanks to Unique Little Bits and Have cake will travel)

1 can black beans, drained (I used 1/2 cup dried, soaked them overnight and then rinsed and boiled for 1 1/2 hours in 1 1/2 cups water)
1 cup banana, mashed (about 2 bananas)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup cocoa
1 tsp vanilla
1/2-3/4 cup raw sugar (I went for the lower end but would try increasing it a bit next time)
1/4 cup oat flour (blizted up oats in my case, which I read was ok)
2 tbsp ground almonds
1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 F/ 180 C
Blitz everything together in a processor and put in a greased 8x8 inch pan (I used a regular loaf tin). Bake for 25-30 mins
Allow to cool before cutting
Improves for being refrigerated, and apparently freezes well.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

It shouldn't come from a bean #4

Tonight's offering features the much-maligned courgette (maligned in our house, anyway). It was starring in a ratatouille-pancake combo, which is a little favourite of mine. The Scientist like pancakes - in fact 'like' is not nearly strong enough - but he likes them sweet. A savoury pancake is an aberration in Science world. In my world, however, it's like a little edible blanket encasing a thick, tomatoey, dollopy mix of some of my favourite vegetables.

Ratatouille is such a ubiquitous dish it hardly needs a recipe. I made mine by dumping some chopped garlic, courgette, pepper, tinned tomato and stock powder in a pan and heating for 10 mins. Then I added chopped aubergine and simmered for another 15 mins or so. Right at the end I added some cornflour mixed with water, which thickens it up nicely, and seasoned it. I would have added some leftover mushrooms, but I had eaten them on a baked sweet potato with avocado at lunchtime. Mmmmmmn. Meanwhile I had made some pancake batter with added wheatgerm for healthiness, and cooked them up right at the end. I have a new pan which is designated veggie only, and this is the first time I've used it for pancakes. I got better at estimating the temperature, and only one pancake ended up looking like a doily. Here are the pancakes, served with grated cheese and some yogurt. I love the way that there's a piece of courgette peeking out of the edge of the nearer pancake - checking what it's like outside its blanket?

Eco Sis: I cannot believe you have maligned the magnificent Jerusalem artichoke in the comments to my last post. Have you tried them roasted? Or in soup? I only ever seem to buy them about once a year, so perhaps that's why I think they're so great!

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

It shouldn't come from a bean #3

Today was going to be a beany interlude as I thought I'd be back late from London after meeting Munchkin Gramps (Grumps? Hurry up and learn to talk, Munchkin, so you can decide what you're going to call your grandparents!). We were both supposed to be working in the Big Smoke today, but unfortunately Munchkin Gramps fell victim to the floods in the north of England and had to cancel. Of course it was the station which fell foul, not MG himself, thankfully. Anyway, this meant that I headed home a lot earlier than I expected to, and suddenly the pasta salad I had with me to eat on the train didn't seem nearly exciting enough for this week of vegetarian delights, despite its Scientist-repelling tomato and cucumber. (Coating goodies I want to hoard myself in tomato is a sure-fire way of making them Scientist-proof, though it does, of course, assume that all treats are improved by being tomato flavoured, which is not necessarily true. I once accidentally sprayed The Scientist's arm with seeds from an over-ripe cherry tomato and have never seen him look so horrified). Anyway, I digress. I needed something quick to prepare if I was going to up the ante - I got home at 7, hungry, and a hungry Lysy is an impatient Lysy.

Luckily, inspiration was at hand. A couple of months ago I had made a successful search for rice-paper discs after seeing Eco Sis and Eco Bro preparing some delicious-looking spring rolls. I'd only popped in to say hello on my way home, but I must have looked very covetously at their dinner as they gave in and gave me one. I was seduced by the off-hand air of expertise with which the Ecos soaked the rice paper in hot water, and wrapped them deftly around the filling. When I reproduced it at home though [can I just add here that I am having to stop typing at least twice a sentence to tickle a very demanding Pooky-cat, so apologies for any break in the flow...], The Scientist was unimpressed (with the food, not my efforts, I hasten to add). I think he thought it was a lot of effort for something that didn't make him feel any less hungry, and I have to admit that we were pretty inexpert at the rolling up. I sighed and put the rest of the rice papers away. Now was my chance to revisit them.

I didn't want to waste my pasta salad entirely, so I didn't cook any rice noodles for the spring rolls, which I otherwise would have done (I say 'cook' - 'soak' is more accurate - this is a low effort dinner even with the noodles!). Instead, I extricated the broccoli and cucumber that was in the salad, and added some avocado, no doubt with gay disregard for the boundaries of ethnic cuisine. What are food boundaries in today's diverse world anyway? Filling ready to go, you just soak the rice papers in hot water straight from the kettle, sprinkle filling artistically in the centre, and then wrap up into an elegant little cigar just like you get fried in a restaurant. Oh all right, you make a bodged wodge which looks like an overstuffed envelope, but still tastes great. I ate mine with some soy sauce for dipping, and sprinkled some seaweed flakes in as I went. I'm sure you can imagine that these attractive little bundles plus the somewhat denuded salad didn't exactly make for a very aesthetically pleasing plateful, so no photo this time. Let's pretend they were beautiful. Not the same as a coffee with Munchkin Gramps, but I thought of him as I ate them (and also that I must remind him to READ THIS BLOG!!).

So, an impromptu offering to the week of Scientist-inimical cooking. The most rebarbative qualities of this meal for him were the rice papers and the cucumber and tomato. Perhaps surprisingly the seaweed is not on the taboo list - it's a recent acquisition for making fake tuna mayo a la Vegan Dad's blog (very tasty indeed). I didn't even suggest that The Scientist try the 'tuna' - he tried it sprinkled on a stir fry and was was quite amenable to it. I will try revisiting the wrapper debate when I manage to locate won ton wrappers though - I have been inspired by the lovely looking dumplings fellow blog-tail party goer Lisa writes about on her blog.

Oh all right, here's a photo after all, to illustrate the difficult conditions under which this entry was written. It illustrates what is known chez Lysy and Scientist as a 'Pooky glove'

Monday, 21 January 2008

It shouldn't come from a bean #2

Today is supposed to be the saddest day of the year - broken New Year resolutions, Christmas credit card statements, dark mornings, nothing nice to look forward to. Despite that, and The Scientist's absence, I've managed to have rather a nice day. I don't make New Year resolutions, I haven't had a credit card statement recently, I made The Scientist's 'simulated sunrise' alarm clock work this morning, and I was working at home so I didn't have to leave in the dark, and had a cat on my lap for most of the day. Plus, I knew I could look forward to a forage into the neglected depths at the back of the cupboard and bring out another foodstuff The Scientist refuses to befriend: barley.

I suppose that barley brings more in the way of texture than taste to a dish, but it raises the heartiness of any dish to a new level. It therefore surprises me that The Scientist doesn't like it, as that's one of his main criteria in his meals, but there's no explaining people's tastes (apart from WEIRD). For tonight I had decided to make a dish I've made before: Persian split pea and barley stew - another Moosewood low fat favourite. I don't know what makes it Persian, but it shares quite a lot of characteristics with cholent - a slow cooking stew which features in Jewish cuisine because it can be put in the oven on a low heat on Friday when the sabbath comes in, and left until Saturday to be served. Eco Bubs makes a rather good example. This one's made on the stovetop rather than in the oven, but it uses a similar range of veggies plus barley and pulses.

It doesn't take too long to make, and I did it in stages at lunchtime again, so it was all ready to be heated up when I got back from the gym. I failed miserably at making only one portion, partly because I would have needed such a piddly amount of barley it didn't seem worth getting its hopes up. Still, it was nice, so that's hardly a problem! I served it with some low-fat Greek yogurt, which was a nice creamy contrast with the nuttiness of the stew. The recipe suggests doing a garlicky yogurt but that seemed like too much faff on getting home. I'm sure it would be lovely though.

I was also happy today because we got a letter informing us that the local council is bumping up its recycling scheme. We used to live so close to a mini recycling depot that we didn't have any kerbside collection, but I was a bit disappointed when we moved that the council don't take kitchen waste, plastic or cardboard. As of March, however, they will! Hooray! Final word: congratulations to The Scientist on his statsy achievement today. He might be a geek, but he's my geek, and I love him. Now I'm off to read up on growing Jerusalem artichokes, which Dogophile Vegan Nurse tells me don't take up too much space....

Here's the recipe:

Persian split pea and barley stew (from Moosewood Low Fat Favourites)
Serves 4 - 6
Cooking time: 1 1/2 hours

1/2 cup raw barley
1 bay leaf
1 large garlic clove
4 cups water
1 cup dried yellow split peas
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup coarsely chopped onions (1 onion)
1 cup carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (2 medium - I cut them a bit smaller so they were bite-sized)
2 cups potatoes, cut ditto (1 medium - I cut them smaller again)
1 1/2 tsp salt
pinch cayenne
2 cups stocks
2 cups coarsely chopped fresh tomatoes (3 medium)
2 tbsps currants
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley (I used dried thyme!)
2 tbsps fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
salt and pepper to taste

Garlic yogurt (optional)
1/2 nonfat yogurt
1 minced small garlic cloves
pinch salt

In a medium saucepan, bring the barley, bay leaf, garlic and 2 cups of the water to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 15 mins. Add the split peas, cardamom, cinnamon, and the remaining two cups of water and simmer, covered, for another 45 mins, or until the barley and split peas are soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Stir occasionally and, if necessary, add a small amount of additional water to prevent the mixture from sticking.

While the barley and split peas are cooking, place the onion, carrots, potatoes, salt, cayenne and stock in a large saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 10 mins. Stir in the tomatoes and currants and continue to simmer, covered, for about 10 mins, until the vegetables are tender. Add the cooked barley and split pea mixture. Stir in the parsley, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Discard the bay leaf.

If desired, combine the yogurt ingredients in a small bowl. Sprinkle on a few toasted pine nuts and serve with several lemon wedges or a dollop of garlic yogurt.

Per 9oz serving without garnishes: 252 cals, 10.9g protein, 1.0g fat, 53.0g carbohydrates, 12.9g total dietary fibre (nutritional info provided by Moosewood)

It shouldn't come from a bean #1

Here’s a list of things I like to eat: mushrooms, courgettes, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, barley, couscous. Here’s a list of things The Scientist doesn’t like: mushrooms, courgettes, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, barley, couscous. See what I have to put up with? I love making it sound as though he’s the fussy one given that I cut out several major food groups in one fell swoop : ). Generally he’s happy to eat anything which is filling and tasty, and I’m very pleased that he’s so amenable to being veggie most of the time at home. There are certain things, however, which are just completely abhorrent to him. The things on the list above are some, but he also thinks that there are certain ingredients which food just shouldn’t be made out of. He’s generally to be heard muttering ‘it shouldn’t come from a bean’ darkly to himself when he catches me slipping soya milk into our shopping trolley. This week, The Scientist is away, adding another branch of science to his bow, and while I will miss him tragically, I am taking advantage of his absence to cook up a storm of mushrooms, tofu and other bean-based goodness.

Tonight, I started with Tofu and Vegetable Cacciatore, which I read about on Fat Free Vegan Kitchen (I do cook a lot from other people’s blogs, don’t I?!). It uses defrosted frozen tofu which I had been intrigued about for a while. I’d read in several places that tofu changes its character quite a lot in being frozen, and takes on a much chewier texture. Perhaps it also becomes very troubled and angry too - I don't know. Susan, of Fat Free Vegan Kitchen particularly said that this dish was a good one for frozen tofu, plus it had mushrooms in it, which made it a combi-winner.

Susan’s recipe served 6, and I wanted to make only one portion to allow for further Scientist anti-food later in the week. I didn’t want to leave anything out though, so I just used small bits of each vegetable. I don’t know whether my proportions were like the original, but it both smelled and tasted really good. It’s one of those dishes that you want to sample each bit of with every forkful. The only thing I did differently from the original apart from the scaling down, was to use cava instead of wine, as I had some left from a weekend celebration (of which more later). Slightly unorthodox, I’m sure, but it didn’t seem to have an adverse effect. The tofu was definitely different from what I’ve had before – grainier and chewier, but it gives nice texture to this dish. Susan served hers with spaghetti squash which I liked the sound of, but couldn’t find at the farm shop. I ate mine with pasta, and it was yum. I forgot to take a photo until I’d eaten half of it, it was so nice, so sorry about the rather half-hearted-looking portion! Apparently I don't eat very neatly. I ate it while listening to the soundtrack from Amelie which is one of my favourite films ever, and can’t help but make me happy even when my best beloved is on a train to Sheffield. I am writing this just after eating and am so full I’m not sure I can even manage any of the ice cream I bought today :(

In other news, Stephanie from Dispensing Happiness has now hosted her veggie-themed cocktail party, and it seemed to go very well indeed. Her living room must have been crammed, there were so many people, and I can only pity the hangover she must have had from the combination of drinks people brought. Some of the other dishes looked amazing, and I look forward to trying some of them out in future. I’ve made some blog friends – awwww.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Move over Mr Grodzinski

This one's for you, Israel Grandma!

A few weeks ago I bought a Jewish cookbook in a discount bookshop. No matter that Jewish staples like roast chicken, chicken soup and salt beef sandwiches are taboo for me, many of my happy memories of childhood are associated with family celebrations of Jewish festivals and their associated foods. Whatever else one may think about organised religion, Jews know how to do a fun festival. Cheesecake, cinnamon balls, kugel, cholent, matzo brei, challah, charoset, apple and honey, doughnuts... all these things remind me of being a child, and they are often how I go about recreating my nicest cultural memories (which is why my friends have a rather confused picture of Judaism, loosely linked to baked goods and no obvious fixed reference points since they're based on a lunar calendar).

So anyway, I had fun looking through my new cookbook, and picked out several things I wanted to try. One was bagels, which I have since attempted with pretty good success, and another was rugelach. These are little rolled up pastries, filled with chocolatey jammy goodness. I don't really remember eating them myself, but I associate them with Israel Grandma, who often has a box or two in her cupboard. Before I had a chance to start thinking more seriously about them, however, I came across a post about them on Fresh from the Oven blog. I always like following a recipe which has been tried and tested, and I had pretty much all the ingredients already, so I gave it a go.

It was a recipe in several stages, but I quite like that, especially if I want a little break from work during the day. I made the pastry one evening, and then rolled it out, made the filling and baked the rugelach in several stages the next day. The pastry has cream cheese in it (so it's a milk-meal only treat) and I did find that the pastry stuck a bit, but adding a bit more flour helped there. I used home-made blackberry jam for the filling with dried cranberries and chocolate chips because that's what I had. The rolled out and topped pastry looked like some sort of unfortunate pizza, but was already smelling pretty good from the warm jam.

The pizza is then cut in to segments (which I've already done in this picture), and then you roll each segment up into a little cigar. Mine didn't look absolutely as they should, but I proceeded to bake them, at which point the kitchen filled with some of the best smells I have ever been responsible for. They tasted gorgeous as well - jammy, sweet from the cranberries, and with a nice bit of chocolate too. In fact I would have happily eaten them without the chocolate. Definitely a success. Here are some of the more photogenic ones posing next to a cup of my ubiquitous and beloved hot chocolate.

When I went back to look at the pictures in the original book, I realised why they looked a bit unusual though - I had rolled them up THE WRONG WAY! You're supposed to start from the wide edge so that you end up with a pretty tapering effect from the narrow part lying uppermost. However, I hadn't thought this through properly and started from the middle out. Perhaps Mr Grodzinski can shift another few boxes of his rugelach yet. He'd better watch out though - these were beautiful and I will definitely be trying again! Now I need an expert taster - are you ready for the job, Israel Grandma?!

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Why do it easy when you can do it hard?

This isn’t a post about self-flagellation or fell-running, or any other similarly unappealing activities. It’s about the efforts involved in trying to take steps to live as ethical a life as possible, which is something which I rate very highly.

I was struck over the festive period how many of our friends were sourcing their turkeys from local organic farms, which made me very pleased (animal welfare is one of my big motivators in making consumer choices). However, I hardly know anyone (apart from Eco Sis :) ) who is cutting down on flying or driving, which seems a bit perverse. I’m a big believer in taking responsibility for our own actions, even if they seem like small steps on what needs to be a very big collective journey. After all, how will we ever take the big steps if there aren’t lots of people taking the small ones? I hate the thought of leaving everything to government legislation, or not bothering because ‘it won’t make a difference’.

So, to that end, we’ve been slowly making some changes to our lifestyle over the last couple of years. We recycle, we compost, we travel to work by bike, bus and train (in fact, we chose where we were going to live precisely so we could do that), we buy local where possible, and we’ve banned ourselves from flying for at least a year and preferably more. I should add straight away that this is partly because we went to Australia this summer, and I also went to San Francisco in the autumn, both on work trips – we feel that we have more than used up our carbon allowance for the foreseeable future. But, we also believe that living ethically and trying to cut down our adverse impact on the environment is worth a bit of sacrifice. We’re not sun-worshippers so we don’t mind not going to hot places on holiday. However, it also means that we won’t meet the incipient-mini-munchkin until he or she is several years old, and we won’t see the Munchkin turning into a talking, running little person either. It’s not an easy decision by any means.

This is all stuff which I take very seriously, and plan to write more about in the future. It was in my mind particularly today though, because I've been busy researching how to get to a conference in Belfast without flying. I could get a bus to Birmingham airport and fly there in – what – an hour and a bit? Or I could get an overnight bus via Holyhead or Stranraer, and turn up at my conference feeling smug but completely shattered. For me there is no choice (with apologies to the people who will have to listen to my paper). I can see why many people don’t see it as being an option though, and I try not to disclose my hard line opinions to others! But all these decisions bring more questions: is it ok to take the car if the The Scientist comes with me? How about hiring an eco-friendly car when we get there? How do I square buying fair trade bananas when I want to support locally grown and in-season produce? How does my no-animal-testing stance tally with my certainty that I would not have wavered if I were told that the drugs which saved The Scientist’s life a few years ago had been tested on animals? I know that there are inconsistencies in what I do, but I think that it’s important to have a framework of priorities so that our choices are meaningful. For me, that’s happy animals, low food miles, supporting fair trade, minimising carbon emissions and recycling. Different elements of that equation get prioritised at different times, but I don’t think that makes them less valid because they are part of my overall lifestyle choice. It does make me cross that you have to have money to make most of these choices, but that’s a rant for another post.

The other thing which brought these thoughts to the forefront of my mind today was the arrival of my festive present from The Scientist: two fruit trees! Anyone who knows me will understand what a hostile and precarious lifestyle these poor little twigs are entering by joining our household, but I’m hoping that I can nurture them to happy adulthood. This is part of a new drive to try growing some of our own fruit and veg. I’m hoping that in a few years I will have apples and pears, courtesy of the trees, and I am busy reading up on growing vegetables in containers on our patio. I’ll keep you updated! I also want to reduce our rubbish more, and in the longer term, research solar energy and better home insulation.

Some of these things are easy because they fit into our lifestyle naturally. In fact, I find it hard not to get annoyed when people don’t change to a green electricity tariff, or use household products that don’t leach nasty stuff into the ecosystem. I love baking, cooking from scratch, and mending and making things. Other things are harder, like not seeing family abroad, or doing without out-of-season fruit (I eat a LOT of fruit!). I’m sure that my journey to Belfast is not going to be a highlight of my life to date. But there’s a real sense of community out there now of people trying to make changes like this. Some of my favourite blogs are written by people much more committed than me, and inspire me to make more changes. Eco Sis and Eco Bro are also a source of inspiration and ideas. So, sorry this post is all words - here's a chocolate pkark to reward you for getting this far. Now, I must go and water those poor little trees…

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Going to a blog party!

I’ve been reading blogs for some time, and thinking about writing my own for a little while, too, but I never realised until I started actually taking part that there could be a real sense of community among bloggers. Blog 'events' are easier than real life ones - you can invite yourself, 'attend' from your own living room, and then share in the glow of meeting new people without the hangover and the taxi fare home. I have discovered all this this week, after stumbling on a reference to Stephanie from Dispensing Happiness monthly cocktail parties. It looks as though they’ve attracted a bit of a following, and judging by the ‘attendance’ they’re pretty desirable events. The way they work is that hostess Stephanie issues an invitation to a themed canapĂ© and cocktail party, for which people then send in photos of their contributions. Once all the guests have sent in their offerings, Stephanie draws her party together with a little background music and description, and then introduces everyone.

It was a lucky chance that the first time I stumbled across one of these invitations, the themes was ‘veggie’. ‘Perfect’, I thought. The trouble was that there were too many things I had on my list of things I wanted to make, and I also had to bear in mind that they be photogenic (so far, not my strong point. What on earth possessed me to place Kiwi Sis’s cake on a 70s-green plate??). What clinched my choice of offering was a recipe I found on Baking Bites blog for home-made bagels. I’ve been trying to experiment and get better at bread making for some time, and now have a little repertoire of grainy breads I like to make for toast and sandwiches. I’ve tried bagels once or twice and have always found that they turn out rather small and dense - think hockey puck rather than New York deli. This recipe, however, promised to be fool-proof, and there were lots of handy tips posted by other readers in the comments. I resolved to try it.

I was really pleased with the results. I followed all the hints and tips in the comments (keep the water at a gentle boil; don't incorporate too much extra flour when knocking back; add a little sugar to the boiling water; check the temperature of the water in the mix) and the dough did rise much better than I've found before. I wonder if usually I use water that's too cool for fear of killing the yeast; this time I measured the temperature and I think it was hotter than usual (can't be sure because when I accidentally knocked the sugar thermometer I realised that the card marked with the calibrations happily jiggled about with no regard for accuracy). Anyway, all this resulted in some bagels which were actually worthy of the name. I have so far tried them warm straight from the oven with jam, toasted in my beloved George Formby grill (as The Scientist calls it after Munchkin Granny got confused between her heavyweight boxers and her ukelele players), and buttered to accompany soup. They were all great. I learnt what it was to kvell.

Ok, so the next stage was crafting the canapes themselves. I had planned to do a platter of mini bagels with toppings, but the bagels had risen so nicely that they no longer looked very canape-like. I think I'd be quite alarmed if I was offered a whole lunch serving as a canape, and might feel the pressure to match it in drinks (which given my tolerance for alcohol would be briefly amusing and then messy). So I had a quick revision of the plan and made bagel chips instead.

Bagel chips are very easy: just finely slice the bagel and then bake them with a haze of cooking spray, in a medium oven for about 15-20 mins. Watch them to check they don't burn, and turn over when they look crispy on the first side. You could also add herbs, garlic or cheese, which I think would be v nice indeed. I realised at this stage that I had got so carried away with the bagels that there was no actual specifically veggie content to my canape (perhaps you're thinking I'm taking this all a bit seriously, but it was my very first blog party and I didn't want to embarrass myself). So I got creative with the ingredients we had in the fridge, and conjured up some black bean tomato salsa, and some marinated mushrooms with sour cream and chives (mushrooms cooked gently in marsala and soy sauce). Phew - that turned into a very long-winded story. This is what the platter looked like (beautifully presented on Scientist Sister's house-warming present - thank you very much!):

The party invite also asked for a cocktail, and there I had no hesitation, and a complete disregard for what might actually go with the food. The Scientist had recently given me a rather fancy looking bottle of chocolate-orange liqueur which I haven't tried yet. So I served that up over ice in one of our new brandy glasses (neither of us drinks brandy but I love their satisfyingly bulbous shape. I'll drink fruit cordial out of them if necessary).

So there we are. The party takes place next Saturday, so I'm just hoping that Stephanie likes my offering. The Scientist took care of the actual bagel chips (all of them in one go, which I took to be a good sign).

In my customary postscript news, I have actually spoken to Kiwi Sis in person! I was so excited. This also means that the Munchkin himself can feature for the first time here: he is settling in well, loves the sun and the local ducks, but is sorry to have lost the sheep from their initial farm-stay rental. He can now also baaaa. What a love.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Brownies by post

Today I want to introduce someone new: Dogophile Vegan Nurse (this is what happens when you let people choose their own nicknames!). DVN was one of my very best friends at secondary school, and through the wonders of facebook we are now back in touch almost every day, which is lovely. She’s had a stressful time recently on her hospital ward and with exams she’s doing in her spare time, so I thought I’d send her something to cheer her up. I love getting things in the post, and so consequently love sending other people things in the post as well because I know how it will make them feel. There’s something so nice about realising that someone has been thinking of you that you don’t quite get in an email, lovely though they can be too. (though on a mini-digression, unexpected texts from New Zealand can have exactly the same effect :))

So anyway, Dogophile Vegan Nurse and I share a love of cooking and baking which our skinny frames wouldn’t suggest, and we spend a lot of time swapping foodie ideas. What better to send here, therefore, than the fruits of a new recipe? I have been reading a lot of vegan recipes recently, partly just out of interest, but also from a desire to reduce my support of the dairy industry and its frequently substandard conditions of animal welfare. I had bookmarked this recipe for vegan brownie bites from post punk kitchen a few weeks ago, and so I decided to give that a go. They were vegan, and they were small and thus postable (and low fat though that’s probably a disadvantage in this particular case!). They also didn’t make demands for substitutes you wouldn’t find in a regular kitchen which was good – my baking cupboard is already full of specialised ingredients and I wasn’t keen to start adding agave nectar and egg replacer. The only unusual thing was flax seeds (linseeds) which I had, though in a moment of unfocused randomness I’m pretty sure I actually picked up the sesame seed jar anyway. And you also need prunes but I had some of them too. Perhaps what I should say is they don’t call for anything you don’t get in a kitchen as random as mine.

A quick blitz of ingredients in the mini processor and a pan bunged in the oven later, the kitchen was full of chocolatey smells, and the resulting brownies were really rather good. They’re not very sweet, as you’d perhaps expect from the low-fat description, but they had a good densely cocoa-y taste, and a nice soft texture. I don’t know what they’d have been like if I’d managed to use the right seeds – perhaps they would have given it more body, but I was pleased with the results, and packaged them up to send off. Today I got a lovely little mail on facebook from DVN, who had just unexpectedly received a dessert to her breakfast in the post. I felt warm and fuzzy; she felt fuzzy and chocolatey; the linseeds felt unloved, but all was well with the world. Hurrah for friendship and vegan recipes (and hello to Leah and Ned, who are the dogs in the phile).

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Happy birthday Kiwi Sis!

Happy birthday to you! To help you celebrate, I have made you a Down Under cake. Long-standing NZ resident that you are, I'm sure that you can identify your birthday cake as a Lamington.

The Lamington is a cake of truly bizarre origins, allegedly taking its chocolatey coconutty form via being accidentally dropped in a bucket of gravy and then casually being thrown away into a bucket of coconut. Well, perhaps it wasn't a bucket, and the gravy somehow morphed into chocolate which is a bit less bizarre, but the whole story appealed to me. I got the recipe from Man That Cooks, and added in a layer of jam because I read that's how they're served in New Zealand. His look a lot nicer than mine though. I was so preoccupied with zooming in close that I didn't think about how the rest of the plate looked! I really should have shaken off the excess coconut, but I like to think that it will make you feel more involved in the whole creation process. I'm posting this on the 9th because it's already the 10th in New Zealand (and unless the Munchkin has got better at sleeping, you've probably been up for some time already). I'm ignoring the fact that your computer is still on a ship somewhere between here and there, and that you probably won't read this for several weeks! The Scientist has kindly tasted the cake and says it's very good. I also like the fact that it's like a pimped Lamington because it's so big for a single portion. Normally I like making mini things, so this is an extra novelty.

I am also really excited to hear that Israel Grandma and Israel uncle#1 have been reading my blog. I have a few posts planned with you in mind, so keep coming

Monday, 7 January 2008

On becoming less incompetent

The festive season may be over, but it's still feeling pretty wintry, and this weekend my thoughts turned to ice skating. An internet search revealed that Warwick Castle had an 'ice trail' over Christmas, which was about to end- it must be fate. I don't think I'll be saying anything too controversial by stating that the entry prices to the castle are pretty scary, which is why we haven't been already, but this seemed like a special occasion. Tickets were duly booked, and excitement duly mounted.

I'd booked us a 6pm skating slot thinking that it would be nice to see the castle at night, and it really was. It's a very impressively intact castle, with its earliest origins in the 11th century. We wandered about, viewed a few of the exhibitions (it's owned by the Madame Tussaud's people, and there was a lot of high-tech visual interpretation going on, and even some waxworks of Queens Victoria and Elizabeth for you to have your photograph taken with). What particularly added to the experience though, was the Christmassy steam fair, and being there in the evening with not many other visitors. Our ticket included a go on one of the fair rides, and I managed to entice The Scientist onto the carousel (he seemed to have suspended being an adult for the sake of one last shot at Christmas. I suppose that explained the bag of popcorn which was bigger than his head as well). I think that we were the only unaccompanied adults on the ride, but I had the broadest grin of anyone on it - especially when I looked over at The Scientist and found that he was calmly and seriously riding his gaudy wooden horse as though it were a perfectly normal thing for a 31-year-old university academic to be doing.

The skating was also great fun. It was an ice trail rather than a rink, so you skated round a short route which had been laid in one of the gardens. It was definitely the best setting I've ever skated in, and we were accompanied by Christmas carols all the way round (I dread to think what the energy requirements to keep it frozen are, though The Scientist would have me believe that it was cold enough anyway for it not to be too bad. I'm hoping he's right). The brilliant thing about skating is that you quite quickly become slightly less completely incompetent than you were originally. Within a few minutes you can pretend that you're gliding along as gracefully as Torvil and Dean, blissfully ignoring the fact that you're almost certainly actually flailing about with the grace of an overweight drunken snowman and being overtaken by four year-olds. Perhaps we glided; certainly we flailed, but we had a damn good time.

It was too dark to take many good photos, but I do like the way this one of the portcullis looks as though there's a beady-eyed sinister presence watching us from the other side.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Scientist does dinner

The Scientist is a good cook, but he doesn't often get the chance because I'm such a control freak in the kitchen I like to plan our dinners for the week and he likes to see what happens when it happens. Yesterday, however, I suggested that he cook in the evening while I went to the gym, and he willingly accepted. He decided on a tapas theme, and the array of delicious smells which were wafting around the kitchen when I got home attested to his success.

Here is the resulting smorgasbord of tapas delights (this is his plate - hence the herring!). Science apparently prefers orange food.

We have, from the top, some home-devised lime-tomato-Italian-herb salsa; some tomato ciabatta from the lovely local deli; the aforementioned herring, provenance ditto; Spanish tortilla; roasted sweet potato chips with smoked paprika (these were DELICIOUS); and dry-fried halloumi. I added some banana chutney mixed with yogurt to mine on the grounds that everything is improved by the addition of banana chutney and I can't believe that I've existed my whole life until two weeks ago without it.

My contribution to the meal was dessert, which was giant oatmeal and raisin cookies (The Scientist's cookie of choice). I have an excellent recipe taken from the very first foodie blog I ever started reading - A Spoonful of Sugar, but I was keen to try something from a book I bought recently, Small-Batch Baking, by Debby Maugans Nakos. I love the idea of making just one or two muffins instead of a whole load if there's no one else to eat them, and this recipe was for just two big cookies.

It was very easy, and the only down-side is that it uses only part of an egg. This wasn't a problem for us though, as the rest went into the tortilla. I used granulated sugar as I had run out of caster, which gave them a not-unappealing graininess, and was also quite heavy-handed with the cinnamon as I love it. The cookies certainly had a lovely undertone of cinnamoniness, which is a word I just made up and am quite pleased with (try saying it out loud). The Scientist declared the finished result to be just as good as the other recipe (and ate half of mine as well to prove he meant it).

Here is the recipe, courtesy of Debby and her Small-Batch Baking. I should add that I did try one of her other recipes, for Old Fashioned Yellow Cake with Double Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting, for The Scientist's best friend's birthday after Christmas. You're supposed to bake the small cakes in clean empty cans, but Best Friend's wife is pregnant and I didn't want to take any risks with not having cleaned the cans well enough, so I used big muffin moulds instead. The cakes were really nice, as was the icing, though I think that a whole normal sized cake would have been eaten up happily as well. I was trying to do my bit for post-Christmas austerity, but apparently it wasn't necessary! I have at least temporarily abandoned my resolve not to post recipes as I reflected that it was one of the things I love about reading food blogs. Just buy the book too.

Big Blast Oatmeal Cookies (endorsed by The Scientist)
Makes 2 large cookies

3 tbsps plain flour
3 tbsps rolled oats
3 tbsps sugar
1/8 tsp bicarb of soda
pinch ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature (I used light butter)
1/4 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp well-beaten egg
3 tbsp raisins

Place a rack in the centre of the oven and preheat to 180 C. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Place the flour, oats, sugar, bicarb, salt and cinnamon in a medium sized mixing bowl and stir with a fork to blend. Add the butter and vanilla and blend with the fork until moist crumbs form. Add the beaten egg and blend it in with the fork, or with your fingers, until a stiff dough forms. Use your hands to mix in the raisins.

Divide the dough in half and place the halves 4 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. They will spread during baking. Bake until lightly browned, about 20 mins

Remove the baking sheet from the oven and transfer the parchment to a wire rack to cook for 15 minutes. Then gently peel the cookies off the parchment, place them on the rack and let them cool completely. Ours didn't make it that long!

On other matters, I got my first email from Kiwi Sis this week, which was very exciting! There will be a letter in the post to your new house tomorrow. And I also made my first foray into HTML code just now, to do the strike-through in the first sentence. I'm very proud of myself (thank you Scientist).

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Being a little girl again - going to the ballet with my mummy

Today I went to see the Beatrix Potter ballet with Munchkin Granny. There is something about going to the ballet with your mummy at Christmas time which gives you an 'all is right with the world' feeling even when you're 31. And when you only just arrived at the theatre in time. And when your shoes have been annoying all the way from Marylebone to Covent Garden. But we had a lovely time.

This particular ballet was special because we had a video of it when we were little. Like most of the things we had on video it was missing the first part, but I have very happy memories of watching the second half. So when I heard, semi-subliminally on the radio while working a few weeks ago that it was being staged over Christmas, I leapt to google it. Evidently most of London was significantly ahead of me as there were hardly any tickets at all left, and almost all of those were standing, behind a pillar, or so high up as to make your nose bleed (or all three). But with much searching I managed to find two tickets in seats, and rang Munchkin Granny in a fever pitch of excitement. Once she'd established that my excitement was not, in fact, related to the imminent prospect of any more grandmunchkins, she rallied and was keen to accompany me (for the record, The Scientist did say that he'd step up to the plate if necessary, but I think he was quite relieved not to!).

The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is a beautiful setting for any post-Christmas treat, and even our stratospherically high seats gave us a perfectly acceptable view. The first half was 'Les Patineurs' (the Skaters), and was a very charming half hour of small cameos. Beatrix Potter was what we had mainly come to see, however, and we were not disappointed. The costumes were perfect, the acting lovely, and it was all as magical as you could hope. I actually hardly remembered anything from the video - the bit where the Two Bad Mice try to carve the fake food they find in the dolls' house; Jeremy Fisher's amazing leaps; and Mrs Tiggy Winkle were about it. This Mrs Tiggy Winkle was quite alluring and seductive with her Arabian-dance-hands, and Jemima Puddle Duck was just gorgeously broody and fluffy. I was quite distressed when Squirrel Nutkin lost his tail, and when Pigling Bland was sent away from his home, which just shows that I haven't gained any sense of detachment from stories of animal deprivation since I was about seven. I just wish I could post some pictures, but a) it's not allowed during the performance, and b) my camera battery gave out before I could take an artistically arranged one of my binoculars and performance program. You'll have to go and have a look at the website to get an idea.

Just for the sake of completeness, I can report that the magical Fosse Way led us to Charlecote House, near Stratford upon Avon, and very nice it was too. And I'd also like to say hello and welcome to Granny T, who I gather has had her laptop cleaned up by Eco Bro and is now initiated into the world of blogging. I hope you enjoy it.