Why summer’s a great time to declutter

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We’ve just returned from a mid-week break on the North Norfolk coast. After weeks of wall-to-wall sunshine, we drove into grey, cloudy skies and endured the coldest, windiest few days I can ever remember on holiday. Typical!

It was so chilly, we had to buy a windcheater for me and a new jacket for Mr G. Needless to say, the above photo is not from the immediate past week (it is, in fact, a picture of my beloved Kynance Cove in Cornwall).

My mum pointed out that we endured a bitterly cold seaside holiday during a sudden blast of chilly weather in the summer of 1976…. Maybe such holidays simply run in the family, then.

This weekend, I’m thawing out in balmy Warwickshire, where the temperatures are set to reach 28 degrees once again. As I have another week of annual leave before I return to the office, I’m looking forward to some time at home. That might include a sweep of the house for excess clutter….

Get your decluttering head on

Summer’s a great time to tackle unwanted stuff.

When the sun’s shining but you need to get out of the heat for a while, this is your chance to get on top of the clutter you’ve been meaning to sort out. So, head for the garage, the shed or any place in your home where you hate being when it’s cold – you’ll be glad you did come November.

Go Swiss

Pretend you’re living in an alpine resort, throw open your windows, let your duvet (comforter) hang out of the window to air and let the the breeze gently enter the room, as you tackle that cupboard or closet that you’ve been ignoring for a while. It’s great to be able to enjoy a bit of shade indoors when the weather is really hotting up and it’s amazing what you can get done in just a short space of time.

Holiday living is simple living

In our Norfolk holiday let, we enjoyed a kind of ‘tiny house living’ courtesy of Airbnb. We rented part of a converted barn in a village location comprising a living room (kitchen space, dining table and two chairs, lounge area); shower room and bedroom. It was just perfect for two (plus dog).

I often remark that, when away, we enjoy a true slice of simple living, with just a few possessions in a minimal, pared back space. So, why not live with less back at home?

On your return from vacation, it’s not unusual to see your home with fresh eyes. This is a perfect moment, then, to reappraise your stuff and capture a sense of holiday living at home.

Put the kids to work

When the kids are around, it’s a great time to encourage them to take a look at their stuff. What could they donate or give away to make room for new things? What have they outgrown that won’t see another season come the autumn?

If you’re in a part of the world where the children are due to go back to school soon, now’s also a great time to try on school uniform or everyday clothes to check what needs replacing. However, I don’t advise this at the start of the summer vacation if you’re in the UK and about to embark upon the 6-weeks holidays; children who eat and sleep have a curious habit of growing!

Beware of decluttering seasonal stuff

When decluttering in the summer, it’s all too easy to make rash decisions about out-of-season items, so beware of letting go of something that’s not in season. What you wouldn’t dream of using when it’s 30 degrees in the shade could be a godsend when the nights start to draw in. So, hold that thought as you tug at the sleeve of that old winter coat. You might just need it.

Unclutter your diet

Summer’s a wonderful time to rejuvenate and throw of the layers in other ways. I’ve just discovered Michael Greger’s The How Not to Die Cookbook, which is filled with nutritionally-charged, delicious plant based recipes. If you’re turning over a new leaf in the house, you might also want to munch a few leaves in the kitchen.

So, turn your decluttering to the kitchen, getting rid of any out-of-date staples and stocking up on the wherewithal to make some yummy new dishes. Plus, as it always takes a little longer when you’re trying out a new recipe, the summer’s a wonderful time to stick on a podcast, roll up your sleeves and prepare a light and healthy dish for everyone to enjoy.

Have a plan

And if it all seems too much, you can always retire to your garden for some…. planning and organising of the cerebral kind. It’s always good to have a plan….


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Frugal recipes for the week’s end

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Last weekend, we weren’t able to secure a Sunday morning food delivery slot, so we scheduled an order to arrive the following day.

We normally eke out our food stocks on the day immediately before our online shopping arrives. This usually involves doing something creative with eggs; throwing together a pasta dish with a tomato-based sauce; or reverting to baked potatoes.

Last weekend, however, there were two days of seemingly meagre rations: both Saturday and Sunday. Could we survive?

This was where the power of the World Wide Web and a well-stocked spice cupboard came in handy. Being a bit creative, as well as understanding what might go together, meant that we were able to hang on an extra day.

Eking it out meant that we:

  • Saved money
  • Used up what we had (less food waste)
  • Were able to clear out the fridge and defrost the freezer
  • Didn’t waste time doing a top-up shop

Here’s what I made:

Cauliflower curry

Why is it that the humble cauliflower seems always to be one of the few remaining vegetables lurking in the fridge?

I have previously made a cauliflower pizza base several times (but didn’t like it much) and I’ve also done cauliflower rice. Neither appealed on this occasion. What I did have were a few sorry looking potatoes, 2/3 bag of spinach and said cauliflower.

Here’s what I made:

https://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/vegetables-recipes/curried-cauli-potatoes-chickpeas-spinach/

Thank you, Jamie!

I really enjoyed this recipe and would make it again. Although I didn’t have a tin of chickpeas to throw in, this didn’t matter. I also needed to cook the dish for longer than the recipe suggested, otherwise the potatoes would have been too firm.

Carrot and lentil soup

This is a recipe I’ve made before, as other recipes often call for one or two carrots, leaving you with a bag of several more.

https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/2089/spiced-carrot-and-lentil-soup

This time, however, I decided to lose the spices (they aren’t a favourite when it comes to feeding children) so this is what I cooked instead:

https://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/vegetables-recipes/helen-s-lentil-carrot-soup/

Random Ragu

Finally, I concocted my own ‘Random Ragu’ for the meat-eaters in the family. If you know how to cook a basic ragu or have ever made spaghetti bolognese, then you’ll be able to produce Random Ragu by using the same basic principles.

I threw in:

Chopped onion
Mix of fresh and dried herbs

Mix of pork mince and beef mince
Chopped tomatoes
A squirt of tomato puree
A splash of Worcestershire Sauce
About 500ml stock

After softening the onion in a little oil, I added the meat, turning up the heat until it had changed colour.

I then added all the rest of the ingredients, bringing the pot back up to a simmer, before cooking slowly until it was done.

I whizzed about half of the sauce with a stick blender to create a smoother, blended ragu, then returned this to the pot to serve over hot pasta, with some grated grana padano over the top.

I almost forgot pudding!

Rice pudding with lemon zest, made the old fashioned way (not out of a tin) was our frugal pudding.

This just needs short grain pudding rice, sugar, milk, lemon zest… and a whole lot of patience, as you’re tempted to stick a spoon into the pan and taste before it’s ready.

Eke-it-out days

I enjoyed my trial and error day of ‘eke-it-out’ cooking. Perhaps you could have a go yourself?

Do you have any fail-safe standby recipes for eke-it-out days? What are your store-cupboard go-to ingredients? Do share by replying to this post, below!


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Enough

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If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed me mentioning a monthly bread-making group that I now attend.

My friend, Lynne, introduced me to this. So far, I’ve baked Apple and Rosemary Bread, soft rolls and a quick-to-make type of breakfast bread, courtesy of The Hairy Bikers. To my surprise, I found that the Banbury Guardian has the recipe and method on its website, in case you’re interested.

Bread group protocols

We meet around the kitchen table of our host, Caroline on the 2nd Tuesday of the month.

Normally, in the style of Blue Peter’s, “Here’s one I made earlier,” Caroline has already prepared a batch of the dough whose recipe we are to make. This is so that we can knead it before it goes into the oven. This is especially useful if it’s a dough that requires a long time to prove. While this bakes, we get on with making another batch of dough to take home.

Towards the end of our measuring, mixing and kneading (and chatting), the first batch becomes ready for us to enjoy with lashings of butter (straight from the oven).

More than simply yeast-based recipes

At this gathering of like-minded women, we exchange stories and develop friendships as we enjoy fellowship and fun together. This invariably involves sharing news of our children or reporting updates on ageing parents, but our discussions are also wide-ranging.

What would 2018 hold?

This week, we shared Christmas and New Year’s stories and repudiated the idea of ‘dry January’ in favour of ‘damp January’, as we sampled a bottle of prosecco that my mum had given me at Christmas. Thanks, mum!

During the evening, our thoughts turned to the year ahead. None of us had made a New Year’s Resolution but one of our friends, Ruth, had chosen a word for the year. This is an idea I’m seeing increasingly: the selection of a word or phrase that might epitomise – or help shape – the coming 12 months.

Ruth’s word was simple, but incredibly powerful. It was ‘enough.’

Enough

This really struck me. What an inspiring choice!

There are so many ways we could apply ‘enough’ to our lives, which would ensure we lived a more intentional life.

We think of ‘enough’ when we talk about:

  • enough to eat
  • enough to wear
  • enough to live on
  • enough to get by
  • having done enough to pass
  • ‘enough is enough’
  • doing enough

No doubt you can think of many more examples.

Intentionality around ‘enough’

I got thinking about this and realised that Enough is the title of Patrick Rhone’s book. Have you read it? I haven’t yet, but maybe I should.

I took a look on Amazon. In the foreword to Rhone’s book, James Shelly explains how Rhone finds the middle ground between the absolutes of ‘unbridled consumption’ and ‘monastic luddism’.

Do I already have enough?

Asking, “What do I really need?” or “Do I already have enough?” is a very good way to check our natural impulses, especially when we are considering a purchase (particularly if it means bringing additional stuff into our homes).

If you shop online for food, checking if you already have enough of a particular item in the cupboard is a sure-fire way of helping stick to your budget, whilst ensuring you have what you need to make this week’s recipes. You’ll also avoid unnecessary food waste.

Hankering after the latest gadget? Ask what you really need. So many appliances or electronic devices have far more functionality than any of us actually require. It may be more cost-effective in the long term to buy a better quality appliance with fewer functions (like our Miele washing machine) than a fancy piece of kit with lots of features you’ll never use.

When simplicity is ‘enough’

In The Lord’s Prayer, one of the best-loved and most frequently spoken prayers in the whole world, the only thing we specifically ask to be given is:

Our daily bread

Whilst ‘bread’ may be a proxy for our most fundamental basic needs, the simplicity of this is beautiful. The ‘staff of life’ is all we need to sustain ourselves. Anything beyond that may be a luxury, even excessive. Through this prayer, we don’t ask for riches. We ask for enough.

Minimalism is about removing the excess from our lives and paring down to a more simple, fundamental way of life. Anything that no longer adds value can be eliminated, enabling us to focus on what really matters (spoiler alert: that’s not stuff).

How lovely that it was at a bread-making group that ‘enough’ was the word for the year. It’s certainly something I’ll contemplate as the first month of the year unfolds.


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Why setting intentions might be better than making New Year’s Resolutions

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Even before Christmas, social media channels were alive with thoughts of New Year’s Resolutions.

Review of the Year

Certainly, the period between Christmas and New Year is often a good point to kick back, reflect on the past 12 months and anticipate the year to come. And many of us consider the start of a new calendar year a good point to establish new habits, change old ones or strengthen our resolve to achieve particular goals.

Types of New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions tend to fall into a number of discrete categories. Some are about improving physical wellbeing (e.g. to eat more healthily, lose weight, take more exercise or quit smoking). Others are more career-oriented or are about relationships, spirituality or experiences. It’s no accident that post-Christmas advertising space is filled with advertisements for slimming programmes, diet foods or nicotine replacements. We’ve all seen them.

However, the majority of us who set New Year’s Resolutions find it difficult to keep them and, instead of sustaining success, we find that our ‘get up and go’ has soon got up and gone.

When New Year’s Resolutions don’t work

So, what’s to be done?

I’ve been thinking about this for a little while and I reckon there might be a different way. Instead of going all out on a concrete ‘all or nothing’ resolution, I wonder if setting an intention might be a gentler, kinder way to move towards a desired state?

For me, an intention suggests something fluid, dynamic and ongoing, whereas a resolution seems, to me, all or nothing.

Setting an intention

Setting an intention is deliberate, but rather than being a rigid absolute, it’s about moving towards a goal (continually and repeatedly). So, if you falter, you get right back onto whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.

To reduce sugar

For me, I have a sweet tooth and, in theory, love the idea of quitting sugar as a New Year’s Resolution. The trouble is, this can be a very difficult thing to do when social situations throughout the year often revolve around food in the form of sweet treats (mince pie, anyone?).

Instead, I like the idea of setting an intention to reduce my overall sugar intake, rather than eliminating sugar as an absolute goal. So, yesterday, I experimented a little.

It was Boxing Day morning and we had stayed over at my parents’ home, following a lovely day together for Christmas Day. Mum offered croissants for breakfast but, instead of slathering mine with jam, I had a little butter on my pastry along with my decaff’ latte and enjoyed the naturally sweet taste and texture of this holiday treat.

Likewise, following our return home some hours later, we enjoyed a late lunch at The Almanack, one of Kenilworth’s best-loved and much-frequented gastropubs. Normally, I would have ordered dessert after my main course (I normally eschew a starter because they are too filling) but, instead, opted for an espresso macchiato as the ‘full stop’ to a very enjoyable meal. As you can tell, I’m not giving up coffee any time soon!

To get more exercise

Similarly, you might want to take more exercise, but would baulk at resolving to run 10 miles per week by the end of the month. Instead, set an intention to put on your trainers and step outside the door. You don’t have to wait until 1 January either. What happens after that is up to you, but it’s a move in the right direction.

Some people find it easier and more empowering to embark upon a new activity with someone who can act as an accountability partner. For others, thinking about their future self might be enough to motivate themselves towards a healthier, fitter self. Consider – honestly – what might work for you and set an intention to move towards this new goal.

Resolutions come with a health warning

Whatever we decide, we do need to be careful about the goals we pursue.

In the introduction to her book America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It For Real, Ruth Whippman cites a University of California, Berkeley study in which participants were asked to rate how highly they valued happiness as an explicit goal and also how happy they were with their lives.

As Whippman writes, the ones who rated happiness as a distinct personal ambition were less happy in their lives in general and were more likely to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and even depression.

This reminds me of Robert Lustig’s most recent book, which I wrote about here. Don’t confuse pleasure with happiness, says Lustig. It’s easy to conflate the two.

My intentions for 2018

So, I’m going to set my intentions around moving towards a small number of achievable goals, rather than proclaiming a New Year’s Resolution on 1 January 2018. Indeed, I like the idea of experimenting and I might well enjoy a few simple living experiments in the coming year.

But don’t forget, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Keep it simple. As Leo Babauta says, “Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” That might help us stay focussed on what’s important.

Happy New Year!


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Letting go and new traditions

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We have said farewell to ‘meteorological autumn’ and, to borrow a well-sung phrase, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

A day off

I took a rare day off earlier this week to spend the day with my mum. We went out for a spot of lunch at Carluccios (thanks, Mum!) and we did some intentional shopping (me: 4 eggcups and my Secret Santa present; she: some napkins and something to drink from Marks and Spencer).

Mum and I commented that we rarely spent time together like this and resolved to do it more often.

Conspicuous Christmas

We got chatting about Christmas, since the shops are already trimmed to perfection (see above!) and the inevitable mountain of ‘themed merchandise no-one actually needs’ was clearly in evidence.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy gift giving but when Christmas seems to equal ‘conspicuous consumption’, my heart sinks a little.

Happily, here in the UK, we don’t forget the ‘reason for the season’ plus we still enjoy a great many Christmas traditions. Children visit Santa; schools enjoy festive fairs and nativity plays; and we love the ceremonial switching of the lights in our home town.

Holiday traditions

Some traditions, however, seem to be waning a little. Do you send Christmas cards, for example? Mum reminded me, “You haven’t sent cards for years!” That’s not strictly true, but I don’t always send cards, especially as the postage is now prohibitively expensive.

For me, it’s fine to let go of traditions, expectations or social mores that no longer serve us. Some things we love and invest time on them, such as dressing our Christmas tree. Other things, we can let go.

Before completing this post, I listened to Gretchen Rubin and Liz Craft’s Happier podcast. Like me, they were considering holiday habits they loved to embrace, whilst admitting that there were a number of traditions they’d happily let go. Check out episode 145 to listen.

Letting go

Here’s my personal list of ‘let go’ items:

  • Home-made mince pies (we don’t eat them; I certainly don’t want to make them!)
  • Sending Christmas cards
  • Bought gifts for grown ups
  • Keepsakes
  • Going Christmas shopping

New traditions

Instead, this year, I’ve decided to embrace some new ‘traditions’ of my own:

  • Gingerbread biscuits (to share, to eat, to hang on the tree)
  • e-cards plus a donation to charity
  • Home-made gifts – watch out adults!
  • Consumables
  • Buying online (for our teenager’s gifts, which are experiences and consumables – yay!)

Since it’s only the start of December, we need to pace ourselves so that by the time the holidays are truly here, we can enjoy them and not collapse in an exhausted heap.

So, I’d encourage you to let go. Perhaps just one thing – one obligation or long-standing tradition that you might secretly (or not so secretly!) wish to relinquish. What will it be?


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Do you know the difference between pleasure and happiness?

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Do you understand the difference between pleasure and happiness? Can you explain how reward differs from contentment? Robert Lustig certainly can and his latest book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science behind the Corporate Takeover of our Bodies and Brains, has something powerful to say about happiness and wellbeing.

About Robert Lustig

Robert Lustig MD is perhaps best known for his bestseller, Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease.

These are not minimalist book titles!

Lustig is a professor of paediatrics, as well as being chief science officer of EatREAL, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to reversing childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. His latest work argues that the corporate world has manipulated us specifically to get us to buy junk we don’t need. It’s an argument you may have come across before, but here we are offered the science behind the message.

We have been ‘manipulated’

Lustig argues that business has conflated pleasure with happiness and “with clear-cut intent” to get us to engage with behaviours that result in society feeling, “…fat, sick, stupid, broke, addicted, depressed and most decidedly unhappy.”

Recognise that rush of pleasure when you:

  • bite into something super sweet and delicious?
  • purchase something shiny and new?
  • see a notification on your smartphone?

That rush is one of dopamine, bringing fleeting reward or pleasure, but this is only ever short-lived and ends up with you wanting more. These things are genuinely addictive.

There is another way

By contrast, Lustig argues that the ‘happy chemical’, serotonin, provides longer-term contentment. He explains the difference between the dopamine effect, which creates, “That feels good. I want more.” versus the seratonin effect that brings about a sense of, “That feels good. I have enough.”

As Lustig says, it’s about understanding the difference between chasing fleeting reward and longer-lasting contentment.

How do we achieve this?

With clear scientific evidence to back up his argument, Lustig argues that real contentment is to be found through his 4 C’s, which increase serotonin in the brain to promote well-being. 

They are:

  • Connect
  • Contribute
  • Cope
  • Cook

I’ll use these themes as categories on future blog posts, so be sure to look out for them.

What it means in practice

Connect

Actively participate in actual social interactions. Social engagement or emotional bonding correlates with contentment, says Lustig.

Facebook (by way of an example) does not count here. Lustig explains the more people use Facebook, the less “subjective well-being” they experience. Just as a diet of processed food fails to support our well-being, so our daily “digital diet” is also doing us harm.

Contribute

By contributing to society (perhaps through work, volunteering or other activities), this (again) increases contentment through feelings of self-worth. Ever read stories of people who gave up their Christmas Day to help at a shelter for the homeless? These volunteers’ feelings of well-being can be directly attributed to the feel-good factor associated with contribution.

Cope

This is mega important. Sleep better, be more mindful, exercise more. These coping strategies are essential to our well-being.

Simply:

  • Get your 8 hours
  • Don’t multi-task
  • Be more mindful or intentional in how you approach your day-to-day activities
  • Take exercise

Cook

The JERF (Just Eat Real Food) message has been around for a while but Lustig makes a particular case for cooking for ourselves, for our friends and for our families. If we do this, we’ll not only be eating foods that can boost that happy chemical, serotonin, but we’ll also be contributing and connecting as well. And sugar is a no no. Period.

All together now

Taken together, these 4 C’s provide the essential support we need to move away from transient moments of reward (pleasure) to a more contented state (happiness).

As a minimalist, reading this book gave me an insight into why we know – instinctively – that more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness. When it comes to more, it’s more of the 4 C’s we really need.

Lustig’s work is based on solid science; it’s not an easy read, but if you’ve ever battled with overcoming negative habits or been concerned that your time spent on social media isn’t adding to your subjective well-being, this book explains why.


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Just 5 ingredients for perfect minimalist recipes

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I’m eagerly anticipating the arrival of Robert Lustig’s book, The Hacking of the American Mind, in which he considers the difference between pleasure and happiness through a focus on four C’s: connection, contribution, coping (strategies) and (unexpectedly) cooking!

These interesting themes are ones that writers such as Jonathan Fields and Brené Brown also emphasize in their work.

Throughout the work of these writers, the idea of connection is particularly prevalent, as are other c’s such as compassion and courage. I wonder why they all begin with ‘c’?

I’ll come back to these in future posts, but I want to focus today on one particular ‘c’. It’s a favourite of mine: cooking! And it’s something that brings me both pleasure and happiness.

Cooking the minimalist way

I’ve written before about meal planning and you already know that I’m a big fan of The Happy Pear, as I wrote about here. However, there’s a lot to be said for simplifying not only how you cook, but what you cook.

Dana Shulz from Minimalist Baker offers a simple approach to recipe planning: 10 ingredients or less; one bowl or 30 minutes or less to prepare. Her innovative recipes are great if you’re looking for plant-based inspiration and many of her creations are ‘special diet’ friendly.

What if you’re not a foodie?

One of the things about embracing a minimalist lifestyle is that you may not want to spend a great deal of time in the kitchen. If it doesn’t add value to your life, you’re not going to want to devote precious minutes to this activity.

For some of us, including myself, it’s fun to try new recipes, so cooking becomes a form of enjoyment and relaxation in itself. For others, food = fuel, so time spent weighing, chopping, stirring and baking (then waiting for the food to appear on the table) ideally needs to be minimised. But how can we do this without compromising on quality?

For me, the answer came from an unexpected source.

Jamie’s 5 Ingredients

Celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, who is not known for brevity when it comes to his lists of ingredients, has recently published a book that I think is worth a mention.

Jamie’s 5 Ingredients offers a new twist on a old theme: combine just 5 items to make a delicious meal with, “maximum flavour… minimum fuss.”

Do you:

  • Aspire to eat well, but don’t want to be tied to the kitchen?
  • Love flavours and textures that go together?
  • Want to eat well-balanced and nutritious food?

If the answer is ‘yes’, then I think this book is worth a closer look.

While myriad similar books already exist (I once owned a copy of James Tanner’s Take 5 Ingredients), this collection seems to embrace the current culinary zeitgeist: fresh ingredients, tasty combinations and easy (but quick) ways to get food on the table.

Classic combos

There are some things in life that go beautifully together. In terms of food, think leek and potato, cheese and tomato, maple and pecan, coffee and walnut…

This book offers tried and tested recipes including:

  • Lemon/courgettes/mint/Parmesan/pasta (=lemony courgette linguine)
  • Salmon/coriander/ginger/lemongrass/chilli jam (=fishcakes)
  • Pancetta/mushrooms/eggs/cheddar/rocket (=mushroom frittata)

Jamie Oliver’s tasty recipes draw on these classic combinations to offer everyone the chance to cook from scratch without the whole business taking up a whole evening or hours on end.

Find out more

If you’re looking for some new recipe inspiration, check out the book if you’re in the UK here. Or if the .com version is for you, look here.

And, no, I don’t have any vested interest in this. What interests me is this: minimising that which doesn’t add value and maximising what does.

Do you enjoy pared-down recipes? What’s your trick for eating well but simply? I’d love to know! Share your answer by replying below.


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