Sunday, 28 February 2010

Not finishing, but getting there

I didn't register how busy I've been recently until I got home from teaching on Thursday and realised how relieved I was it's the reading week next week. I've been feeling as though I haven't been getting anything done because I haven't finished any of my big tasks, but with a bit of time away from the university, I've reflected that I've actually made a lot of progress on them all. The Scientist has been away this weekend, and so I've made sure to spend time just relaxing. I've made meals that involved minimal cooking, I've watched girly films he'd hate (Sex and the City, and Chicago - last of the highbrow academics that I am :) ), I've done lots of crafting, and I spent a really nice few hours with my friend Jane in Bicester.

The flowered tin on the top shelf was The Scientist's grandmother's button box; the one under neath it was my great-grandmother's. And the wooden box on the lower shelf was a present from The Scientist, found in an antiques shop in Lewes

One of the other things I did was sort out my crafting bits. I've been looking out for a little cabinet to go at my end of the sofa for a while, as my space is being slowly taken over by an assortment of books, knitted mice, and half-finished projects. This weekend I was doing a volunteering session at the Recycle Warehouse in Leamington, and found what I hoped was just the thing. I brought it back and was delighted to discover that it fitted the space perfectly - and all my bits and pieces fitted it perfectly too. I really can't buy any more craft books now though :) I spent ages sorting out all my embroidery threads and now I feel all happy and organised.

Look! Escaped mice!

I also pounced on this lovely item at the Recycle Warehouse:

It had only just been brought in, and it's full of someone's old sewing things. I wonder who they were, and am a bit sad that no one in their family wanted it (although not that sad, since it meant I got to revel in it instead). It even goes with the cabinet, and for a hoarding social historian it was a perfect addition to my new-look sewing station.

While I'm on the topic, I can't say enough good things about the Recycle Warehouse. I volunteer there once a month or so, and it's full of weird and wonderful things that people don't want any more. I usually limit myself to picking up a few books but this time I got a bit carried away. It's just amazing what people bring in (and quite horrifying sometimes too) but I love seeing things find a new home when their old owners had decided they were junk. Someone brought in a little unit about the size of my sewing station this week, but the front pulled forward on a hinge to reveal a chute for coal. It didn't stick around for long - I wonder what the new owners will use it for? Anyway, if you're local I recommend taking a look. It's run by Action 21, who put all the profits back into their other local community and environmental initiatives. And if you want to feel good about yourself and get a discount on all the items that take your fancy, then become a volunteer!

And on the craft note, one of the members of my sewing group is having a felt give-away! Have a look at her blog, the Felt Fairy

The Recycle Warehouse is at the Princes Drive Recycling Centre, Leamington Spa, CV31 3PH

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Stratford stash

For the last couple of years The Scientist and I have given each other a weekend away for our Christmas present. That is to say, we have gone away together and each paid for the other's half. Sending each other away for separate weekends probably wouldn't be so romantic. Anyway, it was The Scientist's turn to organise it this year, and he kept it a complete secret until Monday, when he found me faffing about with a theatre seating plan and wondering if I could take up a special offer for King Lear at Stratford for us. He grinned a big grin and revealed that that was my surprise - a weekend in Stratford with tickets to King Lear - and all the Shakespeare houses. The weekend away was lovely enough, but RSC tickets AND all that extra thoughtful planning as well? He's in credit with the brownie points for some time. (And in this house brownie points can be exchanged for actual brownies :) ).

We've just come back and we had a lovely time. The play was amazing - neither of us had seen Lear before, but we both loved it. The hotel was nice, the room luxurious, Stratford cold but pretty (and not too crowded), and the Shakespeare houses we visited beautiful and interesting. And particularly informative given that I'm writing a lecture on homes and families in the past which was a bonus for me and no doubt quite tedious for The Scientist - but he kindly acted interested.

One of the best things about the weekend was not being in any sort of a rush. We ended up doing quite a bit of unexpected whimsical shopping as a result, and this is the stash I came back with. Most of it was from Book Depot, and a kitchen/furniture shop the name of which I forget (too busy ogling haberdashery :) ). The bookshop produced two craft books, some felt and some little handy notepads, and the other the lush selection of fabrics and a needle for knitting in the round to make this bag pattern some day when I've finished my other projects. Yes that is Liberty fabric - on sale and gorgeous. The brighter one is to make some table mats and coasters for a friend's wedding present (the red and the bias binding are to finish them), and the other is to make into a bag. And the pinky one is maybe to make some PJs - or alternatively to make something cute for The Munchkinette. I was really tempted by some fine Liberty cord as well but managed to restrain myself. The noodles were from a health food shop - it's not a good trip if you don't come back with some new noodles. In this case black rice and wakame, and green tea. I feel slightly guilty from all the shopping, but some of it's for presents or present ideas, and I know that my sewing buddies will laugh and sympathise anyway! The Scientist had a good shopping trip too - several books and a good sit-down to read the sports section while I fussed over notions.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Spinach and lentil soup revisited

We half live off soup during the winter months and have lots of home-cooked favourites - but I don't eat soup out that often any more as it so often has butter, milk or cream in it. So when I saw that the theme of Jaqueline and Lisa's No Croutons Required this month was copycats I was at a bit of a loss. Definitely the best soup I've eaten in a cafe or restaurant in years though was the spinach and lentil soup from Earth Cafe in Manchester which I already blogged about. When I tried to recreate it that time I put mushrooms in it, and made a nice soup, but not that like the original. But I have to admit that I have a cheat now. The soup was so amazing that I emailed the cafe afterwards to tell them, and to ask if I might possibly be able to have the recipe. Lovely people that they are, they estimated a recipe based on four people and sent it back to me. I don't like to reproduce it directly since they were so nice as to pass it on, but the copycat theme made me think to make a variant on it this week, based on what we had in the house. It was pretty much as good as the one I had at the cafe if memory serves correctly - thick and earthy and pleasingly green. The original recipe called for quite a lot more lentils than I used, but I made mine to eat the next day and it thickened up lots. If you're eating it straight away I'd think about adding some more.

Earth Cafe redux spinach and lentil soup
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 Tbsp tomato puree
1 Tbsp dried thyme
200g red lentils
1.2 litres stock
Big load of spinach, washed

Fry onion and carrots in a little oil until soft. Add tomato puree and stir. Add lentils, thyme and stock, and simmer until lentils are done. Add spinach and let it wilt like crazy. Blend. Yum.

Earth Cafe is at 16-20 Turner Street, Manchester

Friday, 12 February 2010

Chinese new year cupcakes

We're not over the cupcake obsession round here yet. I don't know quite what's happened - it's not like cupcakes haven't been trendy for years. Anyway, these ones were for my craft group's first cooking meetup (we use 'craft' to mean anything we all like, from films to books to shopping to actual crafting :) ). Cie, of the famous blueberry nutella cake, was demonstrating how to make Chinese pork dumplings, and while I had to (unobtrusively, I hope) hold my nose while they were cooking, they were an amazing success. My lack of tolerance for the sight or smell of meat shouldn't detract from Cie and her production line's efforts anyway - a bit of pre-planning and work on her part and a choice of boiled or fried perfect little moon-shaped pillows of [skim over that part, la la la] were fairly rolling off the stove and into eager eaters' mouths.

My contribution to the feast was dessert. Naturally there is a back story to it, so you'd better get comfy - or skip straight to the recipe links. This back story starts in a Chinese restaurant in Pasadena, veers into a Chinese supermarket in Coventry, backtracks into a spring roll (sounds messy), and finally ended in cupcakes. The Pasadena part is from my visit to Tracy (who I am seeing tomorrow - yay!) a few years ago. She ordered us some bean paste dumplings for dessert at lunch on my last day and they were delicious (though we were probably too full to do them full justice!). The veer into Coventry happened a few months ago when we we there for some reason or other and stopped into a Chinese supermarket opportunistically for some shingshao wine. I spotted a tin of red bean paste, remembered those dumplings and picked it up. I regretted this somewhat after it had sat in the cupboard for quite a long time, but then I noticed a recipe for banana and red bean paste spring rolls in a cookbook I found in a charity shop. I'd thought about buying this book before so was very pleased to find it for 50p. I have to admit that I'm glad I didn't pay full price as there aren't too many veggie recipes and there's a limit to how many times you can sub more veggies or tofu for different types of meat. But this recipe was a winner and I made it to take to Vicki and Paul's house for dinner. You just get some filo (or spring roll wrappers), spray some oil over them, spread some paste over it, slice some banana over the top and fold up. They could be fried but we baked them because the oven was already on. They were amazing - the bean paste went all melty and nutella-like.

Bean paste added, ready for more batter over the top. Note Chinese new year red cupcake liners

But that wasn't the end of the bean paste and so when the Chinese new year meetup was announced I knew exactly what I was making, and even what recipe. For the cakes I went to Chockylit, and for the frosting, to Cupcake Project - my two favourite cupcake blogs. The cakes were just vanilla with bean paste in the middle (mine sank to the bottom as I think my cakes were a bit larger but shallower than Chockylit's). I reduced the sugar quite a lot as well as my paste was from a tin, whereas Chockylit had made her own and made it less sweet. I went down to a bit over half what was in the recipe. The frosting Chockylit used was a cream cheese one though and I'm trying to avoid using dairy in my baking now too, so I went for Stef's red bean paste buttercream, using vegan margarine again. She has a Chinese new year cupcake to go with it, but it involved glutinous rice flour which I wasn't sure I could get without more advanced planning.

Finished cupcakes. Note not at all seasonal blue spotty liners

I almost forgot about the cupcakes as we were having such a good natter after the dumplings, but luckily I remembered in time to share them out. Everyone said nice things about them, though I thought they were a bit dense when I tried one later, and The Scientist, while liking the cake, said they could do without the bean paste. What does he know?? We've agreed that vegan marge is no less disgusting than ordinary marge now though, so he should be less traumatised than last time to realise that's what he was eating :)

Whew - long story, good cupcakes, happy Chinese New Year.

Chinese new year cupcake recipe here (I halved it and then almost halved the sugar as well)

Chinese new year cupcake frosting here

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Full O'Goodness burgers

Look - a savoury thing! We do eat proper food in this house! I made these burgers to use up some tofu and because I just couldn't stay enthusiastic about scrambling it, which was my first thought. The Scientist had said he was game to try it, and lots of people seem to like it, but I just wasn't convinced. So instead, I partnered it with all the good things I could find in the fridge and the cupboard and made some healthy little protein-heavy burgers.

It's easier to describe what I did than write out a recipe as it was all a bit imprecise. I just got out the food processor and threw in: about half a block of firm tofu, pressed and then crumbled up; half of a big sweet potato, which I'd steamed in the microwave; about 1/2 tsp of tamari, and about 1 tsp of sweet miso; a small bunch of hijiki seaweed which I'd also cooked in water for a few minutes in the microwave and then chopped up; a handful of mixed pumpkin and sunflower seeds; and about a tablespoonful of wheatgerm. I blitzed it all up and then added wholemeal flour a bit at a time until it looked as if it was going to hold together. The mixture was very soft, but it held together fine, and I rolled each burger shape in a bit more flour and some wholemeal breadcrumbs for a coating. I dithered about how to cook them, and in the end baked them for about 20 minutes at about 175C. They weren't very crisp so I put them quickly under the grill for a few minutes which helped. We were running to a schedule or I would have left them a bit longer to crisp up some more.

The burgers were much softer than our usual various favourites. But they were nice - sweet from the potato and the miso, with some crunch from the seeds and breadcrumbs. I'd definitely make them again, perhaps playing around a bit with the proportions. We ate them in wholemeal wraps with salad, tomato relish and avocado. I always laugh at how The Scientist and I eat our wraps. I generally only have one so I put quite a bit of filling in, fold up one end, and then roll it up. It's messy but fun. The Scientist has more than one, so he puts less in each, and folds it up into a neat little envelope. I just think it's funny that I'm usually the anal - no, neat - one, but his dinner is so much neater. I had another leftover one for lunch the next day, with baked beans and a fried egg. And then I accidentally nuked another one into oblivion when microwaving it. I still have one left in the fridge - I must have made 8 or so.

I should probably add, in fairness to The Scientist, that I am neat with eating, but not at all neat with my crafting projects or shoes. He is very tolerant as long as all of my knitting stays over my end of the sofa and doesn't menace him or the cats with pointy needles. Seems fair enough, really.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Warning: high sugar post ahead

'What do you mean, "warning"?', I imagine you asking. 'This blog has been full of nothing but sugar for months now'. Well this time I don't mean only that type of sugar. I made these double choc chip cookies this week to say thank you to some students for doing some research with me. But I deliberately made extras because I wanted a few to take to Eco Sis's yesterday. You see, after 5 years of Very Hard Work, Eco Sis has become a doctor. A genuine stethoscope-wearing, blood-drawing, diagnosing doctor (as opposed to my type, who swans around libraries and insists it's 'not my period' whenever I'm asked a question). She will hereafter be Dr Eco.

Scholarly cookies getting a bit of research in before goingg to meet their eater

And that's where the sugaryness comes in. Dr Eco: I am the proudest sister in the world. Not only have you worked incredibly hard for the last five years, but you've also been sunny and supportive at the same time; you've devoted huge amount of extra time to the things you think are important; and you've always made time for us to play board games, swap sewing tips, cook dinners, and go on outings. Plus you managed to travel around Europe, visit America several times, part-qualify as an American doctor as well - oh, and get married to the nicest Yank I know. Plus you are an excellent diagnostician who manages to cure at the same time. I have never been bothered by that collapsed lung or that rare psychosomatic disorder since you diagnosed me :) I've said it a million times over the last few years, but you and Kiwi Sis are my best friends and I'm going to miss you while you're away for the next few months.

I didn't say all that when I saw her yesterday, but I'd like to think that the cookies said a bit of it in chocolate form. They certainly said something good: both she and The Scientist have put them at the top of the double choc chip cookie tree immediately. And, as a little bonus (whisper it): they're dairy free. Not quite vegan as they still have eggs in them, but I subbed vegan marge for the butter and they were still delicious. Sorry I didn't make that entirely clear when I offered you one (three?), Scientist, but I thought you were probably pretending you hadn't seen the Pure spread box out on the worktop anyway :)

Medically-endorsed double chocolate chip cookies (adapted from my cookie calendar 2009)

1 cup plain flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
120g butter/marge/vegan marge
1/2 caster sugar
1/2 light brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
170g choc chips of your choice (or a mix of types)

Preheat the oven to 160C. Sift together the flour, cocoa, bicarb, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Beat the butter and sugar until smooth and creamy, and beat in the egg and vanilla. Add the flour mixture and mix until almost blended. Add the choc chips and mix.

Scoop the dough onto a baking sheet [the instructions said 5cm apart but I didn't find they spread too much]. Bake 12-14 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Made about 2 dozen