What we’re eating in lockdown

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I’ve been on annual leave this week. So, instead of working remotely from my little study, ‘holidaying’ at home has been my experience. Here in the UK, the government’s daily mantra is Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives. So, staying at home we are.

On the whole, the nation is respectful of the reasons why we’re being asked to do this and fiercely proud of our NHS and grateful for all our key workers. Just now, the UK has been told we must remain in lockdown for at least 3 more weeks. But I must add that this is no hardship in this particular corner of the world. In the past few days, it feels as though we’ve been watching spring gently unfurl, as ripe clematis buds burst into flower and leaves on the silver birch and sycamore trees begin to reveal themselves a little more with each passing day.

Food is now at the forefront of people’s minds

A recent post on our town’s local Facebook group caught my eye:

Current family weekly budget in lockdown 💵

Petrol – £0
Meals out – £0
Useless purchases – £0
Groceries – £2467.90

It certainly feels like we’re spending more on food, although a check of my April Dual Account Budget Spreadsheet suggests we’re on top of our budget, which is pretty good considering there is no eating outside of the home whatsoever.

Apart from the obvious changes to daily life (we are told that traffic levels are at their lowest since 1955), a regular topic of conversation is food.

How to obtain essential provisions, what we’re eating, where to find key ingredients and top tips for getting an online delivery slot are key features of our neighbourhood WhatsApp group chat.

A new favourite podcast of mine, Table Manners, has also considered how we’re feeding ourselves in lockdown. Check out Episode 10, with the fabulous Emily Maitlis or go back in time to 2018 to the episode with my favourite cookery writer, Nigella Lawson.

Au revoir to online shopping

One big shift we’ve made is the transition from regular online shopping to sourcing food from a variety of new places.

Our local farm shop is providing a fabulous service: place your order online, then wait for them to call you so that you can make payment. Drive up, then they’ll come and place your food straight into the boot of the car. Simple! And rather good. Today, we’ve enjoyed locally-produced salad leaves, milk from a dairy just up the road and a rather splendid chunk of chocolatey rocky road (shopper’s perk).

We even managed to buy a bag of plain flour, a grocery item that has been in short supply, as families have begun baking together during the pandemic.

Yesterday, my daughter and I spent a pleasurable hour in the kitchen making chocolate chip cookies from Sally’s Baking Addition.  These have the most wonderful chewy texture, are utterly delicious and worth the extra devotion required to achieve such perfection. Thank you, Sally! (UK friends, we used baking powder instead of ‘baking soda’ and light muscovado sugar for the brown sugar).

There’s certainly something very soothing about the quiet discipline of weighing, sieving, mixing and shaping ingredients into the ultimate comfort food. I must also mention the simple, humble but oh-so-delicous flapjack.

Cook

One source of pre-cooked frozen food is Cook. While the neighbouring butcher and deli store in Leamingon Spa had people queuing round the block (at a socially acceptable distance), we were able to place our order to cook online, then arrive on the specified day to collect our order with no waiting time at all. Plus, Cook‘s meals for two feed three of us happily – and very tasty they are too. Our family’s all-time favourite is Cook‘s meatballs in tomato sauce, but the chicken pie (on the menu tomorrow) may yet beat it into first place.

Making an honest crust

Our local artisan bakery, Crustum, has also solved the problem of how to manage during lockdown. Customers can now pre-order and arrive at a specific time to collect their bread, which is only ever available 3 days per week. I’ve just placed an order for Saturday, so can enjoy a legitimate trip out on my bicycle, whilst satisfying my current craving for some of Crustum’s famous chelsea buns.

My mother, who lives 90 miles away in Yorkshire, has also described how food suppliers local to her have become inventive, offering home deliveries rather than their usual weekly presence at the market.

I wonder how we’ll shop and eat post-pandemic? It was certainly heartening to see a BBC report that, in France, essential stores include those selling bread, cheese, groceries and chocolate. At times such as this, des Chocolatiers are indeed providing an essential service.

Looking inwards

So, we’re certainly keeping an eye on the outside world, whilst our focus has necessarily been more inward-looking, as food is cooked and eaten, cupboards get a sort out and old paintwork is refreshed. It’s been really lovely to get on top of jobs that would otherwise be crammed into busy weekends.

And, in spite of having maintained a minimalist home for 4 years now, there have still been some items we’ve assigned to the ‘goods out’ pile, ready for when some kind of normality returns. Living with less still gives me a thrill.

Get uncluttered

Whilst writing, have you noticed that Joshua and the team at Uncluttered are offering the spring online course for just $59? Use my discount code of FF25 and you’ll also get a further 25% off, so there’s no better time to join if you want to declutter during lockdown. The discount ends on 22 April, so do take a look if you’re curious about what Uncluttered can do for you.

So, stay safe, friends. And let me know what you’re eating in lockdown. I hope it includes something comforting.


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Getting ahead with food prep

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Are you a “last-minute-Lucy” or someone who likes to get started with tasks early?

I’ve typically fallen into the latter camp. When issued with an assignment at university (a looongg time ago now!), I’d be the first to head for the library as soon as the question was issued. That approach has stood me in good stead throughout my career, especially when issued with directives from a one-time CEO whose deadline was usually 12:00 noon the following day (no matter how challenging the task).

What I’ve only just realised, though, is how much simpler life becomes if you adopt the same approach to food preparation. Why didn’t I work this out before?! I’ve written about meal planning in the past and I almost always shop to a list (either online or in person), knowing exactly what I’ll cook in the days to come.

However, what I didn’t always do was get ahead with the necessary food prep required to make the actual cooking a lot easier. This would mean I’d arrive home after work then have to start (literally) from scratch. That’s a pretty exhausting prospective if you left at 07:30 and didn’t get home until around 18:30.

Mise en Place

If you’re a trained chef, or experienced foodie, you’ll know how valuable the ‘mise en place’ can be. It certainly makes the production of a specific dish seemingly more effortless. Literally, ‘putting in place’ what you need for a specific recipe may seem like a lot of effort, but it also helps avoid you making mistakes, especially if the dish is unfamiliar.

Watch any TV cook and everything will have been pre-weighed and chopped, leaving them simply to demonstrate how to combine and cook the ingredients in the right order.

Getting ahead

Prepping specific parts of a dish is something I could have been doing before, but never have until now. Imagine needing a cooked sweet potato for fish cakes. In the past, I’d have had to wait for the potato to cook, let it cool a little, then mix in the remaining ingredients. Now, with my newly-discovered cooking super-power, I’m ahead of the game. The potato is baked in the oven the day before, so all I have to do is some deft chopping, a bit of stirring, and we have ready-to-go fish cakes. This helps when family members are wont to say, “What time’s dinner?” at a moment’s notice.

Weekend cooking

At the weekend, there are lots of opportunities to get ahead with food prep. I’m loving Giancarlo and Katie Caldesi’s Diabetes Weight-loss Cook Book, which I mentioned in my last post. Their low-carb lasagne is delicious and I now make my own vegetarian version of it. But, like any lasagne, it requires several stages to prepare. So, yesterday, I made the ‘spinach lasagne’ sheets in advance, cooked the bechamel when I found 20 minutes to spare, and assembled the whole thing during the evening. Today, we’ll have a home-cooked ready meal, with none of the chaos associated with trying to organise the various components all at once (and I’m not a very tidy cook, so this is a good thing!).

Slow cooking

I like the idea of prepping different dishes slowly, over a day or so. Who says you have to slave over a hot-stove, ready to serve a meal as soon as it’s cooked? It certainly takes the stress out of weekday evenings to have food partially prepared. And although you do have to think ahead, taking the slow route to food prep’ is even better if you realise that you’ve run out of something. It’s not unheard of in our house for tasty morsels, destined to go in a particular dish, to be eaten by someone who fancies them as a snack!

So often, we say there isn’t time to cook. But perhaps there is. We just have to fill those spare moments, say while the kettle’s boiling for a cup of tea, with some casual weighing of ingredients or some gentle stirring on the hob. Preparing food in this way also – for me – means that when we do sit down to eat, I enjoy it all the more.

p.s.

Low Carb Lasagne, adapted from The Diabetes Weight-Loss Cookbook

Spinach ‘Pasta’ layers:

Blend together :
370-400g defrosted spinach, squeezed from a 900g bag of frozen spinach
1/2 tsp salt
4 eggs
8 tbsp almond/cow’s milk
1 heaped tbsp psyllium husk powder (get this from Amazon)

Spread across 2 baking sheets that have been lined with oiled baking parchment. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees C (fan) for 8-10 minutes.

Allow to cool.

‘Ragu’:

I make a simple veggie version of what could otherwise be a beef ragu.

Combine a large jar of passata with capers, olives, lemon zest, a dash of olive oil and a ti of lentils (I like puy lentils for this).

Use this as your ragu layer.

‘Bechamel’:

550ml almond/cow’s milk
4 tbsp cornflower
4 tbsp double cream
50g butter
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1 bay leaf

Mix 3 tbsp of the milk with the cornflower in a small bowl. Pour into a saucepan with the remaining ingredients, then put over a medium heat. Whisk to combine, removing from the heat when the sauce has thickened and is bubbling. Season.

If you don’t want to make a bechamel, you could use some ricotta cheese, which I used in the version shown below.

Making up the lasagne:

With 50g parmesan and 125g mozzarella, proceed as follows:

Drop spoonfuls of the bechamel and ragu into a lasagne dish measuring c. 22 x 26 cm. Don’t mix them together. Layer onto this some parmesan and mozzarella, then use some of the spinach lasagne (cut to fit) as your ‘pasta’ layer. Keep going until you have used up all the ingredients.

Bake for 30 minutes at 200 degrees C (fan), then let everything settle for 15 minutes before tucking in.

My version looked like this:

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Living the Blue Zones way on Blue Monday

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If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a sucker for a new recipem book. And it’s true that probably the only things I regret letting go of in my decluttering phase are some of my lesser-used cookbooks.

Most recently, we’ve been enjoying the wonderful recipes from The Diabetes Weight Loss Cookbook by Katie Caldesi. These low carb, creative and incredibly tasty dishes offer a lighter take on tradional recipes with an italian twist. I’m also keen to have a look at Amelia Freer’s latest book, Simply Good for You but I am holding myself back because of the book I’m about to describe.

The most significant boost to our New Year’s culinary experimentation has to be the amazing The Blue Zones Kitchen by Dan Buettner.

The Blue Zones concept is amazing; around 15 years ago, Buettner identified the 5 places around the world that have produced the world’s longest-living people. The concept is simple living at its best.

A dip into Blue Zones concept

Here are just 3 interesting aspects of the Blue Zones simple way of life:

Eat a whole food diet

The recipes in The Blue Zones Kitchen are mouth-wateringly good, but simple in their approach. Following the time-honoured recipes of older residents in each location, these dishes are based on just 20 or so basic ingredients and many feature all different types of beans, which – it is recommended – should be eaten every day.

Essentially promoting a plant-based diet, The Blue Zones Kitchen emphasizes whole foods including vegetables, nuts, olive oil (extra-virgin), some grains, lots of greens and fruits with red wine to drink with meals. Out go all kinds of processed foods, plus meat, fish, dairy, eggs and sugar are limited to special occasions or treats.

In our house, we’ve started with a huge pot of home-made Sardinian minestrone soup. That’s going to feel like a hug in a mug when it gets to lunch time today!

Exercise naturally

For exercise, ‘blue-zoners’ enjoy natural movement, especially walking and gardening, to keep them active and healthly throughout their whole lives. What’s refreshing is is that Blue Zones inhabitants simply walk wherever they have to go.

Consider walking up and down the mountains of Sardinia or Ikaria and you’ll realise that will get the heart pumping! That sounds so much more appealing than sitting at a desk all whole day long, then driving to the gym to attempt to offset the lack of activity earlier in the day.

At work, a small number of us who all live relatively near to one another are discussing the idea of setting up a walking group so that we can walk together to/from the office. By doing this, we’d reap the benefits of a simple daily workout whilst also building our social network. I can walk home from work in about 1 hour, 15 minutes, so as the daylight hours extend as we head towards spring, I’m looking forward to doing more of this.

Be sociable without social media

One of the positive aspects of those leading a ‘Blue Zones life’ is what Buettner describes as, “..active engagement with community, friends and family.” Spending quality time with other people increases people’s sense of wellbeing and I’ll be there’s not an iPhone in sight.

Last week, in the news, we learned that UK psychiatrists have said that tech companies must share their data with researchers to help improve understanding of the affects of social media on children. For all of us, having our heads stuck in our phones – even for reading – means that we’re failing to engage with others; make connections; or appreciate what’s going on around us.

This weekend, I intentionally spent less time on my phone and more time in the presence of others. It felt like I’d had several days away from the office, instead of just two. Maybe I should switch it off altogether at the weekends…. that would be an interesting experiment.

Don’t be blue

Today is said to be ‘Blue Monday’, a day that is said to be the most depressing in the year.

So, I say let’s not be blue. Let’s learn a little from the Blue Zones way of life and inject a little simplicity, health and happiness into our lives.


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3 things you need to do this weekend

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How did you spend last weekend? Perhaps you spent time on chores, catching up from the week, or maybe you enjoyed a hectic round of social events?

In her podcast, Before Breakfast, Laura Vanderkam discusses ways to maximise a short weekend (aimed especially at those who perhaps work on a Saturday or Sunday). She advocates prioritising 3 things that will help make the most of your time off, no matter how long you get:

  • Something social
  • Something spiritual
  • Something physical

For me, last weekend fulfilled all of those ideas.

Something social

Last weekend was somewhat extended for me, as it began with a light meal and a catch-up old friends on the Thursday evening.

My ‘Gin and Books’ group followed on Friday, with a spirited discussion on Joanna Nadin’s The Queen of Bloody Everything. Some of us really loved it; others weren’t so keen. So, maybe it’s a ‘marmite’ book. Either way, the gin was lovely; I sampled Strawberry Gin with an Elderflower Tonic.

The following day, I was was scheduled to do my fortnightly Pets as Therapy visit with Ollie, our (almost) 6 year old cockapoo. This combined both the social with the ‘spiritual’ as my heart sings when I see the enjoyment of the residents in the nursing home I visit visibly perk up when they see us.

It’s rare to have 3 social events in quick succession; I wonder why they all arrive at once?

Something spiritual

If you’ve ever been a singer in a group (or even enjoyed singing in church), you’ll know about those spine-tingling moments when you experience a musical moment of perfection.

Anything that’s good for the soul will give you a tick in the box when it comes to ‘something spiritual’. For me, that was baking a lemon drizzle cake on Saturday morning in honour of our daughter’s return from a few days away. Simple pleasures, such as enjoying a lovely cup of tea in the garden or a quiet soak in the bath, can really be uplifting.

Something physical

Our ‘something physical’ last week was a long walk – straight from our house – down to the Millennium Trail, which follows the path round Kenilworth Castle. This morning’s walk followed part of that route, but it’s raining heavily, which is odd since we experienced baking temperatures on Thursday!

We know that getting out in nature is good for us (more on this here), so we try to do this, even if it’s chucking it down!

I love the idea that these 3 simple suggestions can help us make the most of the time we have off. So, what will you be doing this weekend? I’m certainly going to remember to try to incorporate a bit of each: something social; something spiritual; and something physical.


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Slow-down hacks for a simpler summer

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It’s been a whole month since my last post, so I’ve been desperate to get back to the blog. How are you all?

The reasons for my silence are twofold: Mr G has been jetting around Europe for work (Warsaw twice; Prague once), so life’s a bit different when he’s not around (all you single parents out there, you have my utmost respect).

Plus, I’ve been spending some extra time during the evenings, sitting alongside our 17-year-old in the car, to enable her to practise her driving skills. Having past her theory test, she now has her practical booked for next month, so we’re keeping everything crossed.

Happily, after what has also been a very intense period at work, I’m really looking forward to the summer. It’s a great time to slow down and simplify life a little bit, so here are some hacks for you that I’m going to be putting into practice once school’s out.

Switch your mode of transport

Even when you’re at work over the summer, if your journey permits it, try changing your mode of transport. My workplace is just 5 miles away, so I’ll be dusting off my bicycle and whizzing to the office via the cycle paths. I don’t want to cycle all year round (the route is not fully lit), but when the mornings and evenings are filled with sunlight, it’s lovely being able to arrive at the office feeling oxygen-filled and energised by a bike ride.

I met another Sixth Form parent on Thursday who told me that she’d recently taken part in the school’s 100 mile charity bike ride in France; she suggested I go along next time. I don’t know about that, but I might just manage 10 miles a day!

Eat simply

Did I tell you that I’m loving Madeleine Shaw’s cookbook, Ready Steady Glow (recommended to me by fellow blogger, Glamour in the County). Full of easy-to-make, tasty and nutritious recipes, Shaw’s way of cooking has me getting meals on the table – from start to finish – in less than half an hour. Even better, I’m going to be choosing her simple salads to throw together during the week this summer. That will leave the weekends for some more self-indulgent and time-consuming culinary creations.

Dine outside

Talking of food, we love eating out when the weather is fine. Last year’s heatwave saw us making very good use of our patio set. This year, so far, we’ve had a very wet June but I live in hope that the weather during the school holidays will be kind to us.

Today is going to be the hottest yet and I am – unusually – at home entirely alone. Mr G has taken our teen to a university open day and Ollie-bobs (cockapoo) is at the groomer’s.

Invite others

I’m hoping to follow in the footsteps of inveterate people-gatherer Sarah Harmeyer of www.neighborstable.com whose story I read about in the latest issue of Simplify Magazine.

Harmeyer’s welcoming ethos is an inspiration to us all; keeping it simple, but extending the hand of friendship to all-comers is something I’m going to try to do more of during the holidays.

Get those jobs done

This week saw the start of a series of household jobs we’ve been meaning to get done for some time. Somehow it seems easier to be doing work on the house when the weather is fine.

Plus, we’re doing some jobs that really should be done in the summer months. First up, we’re replacing our home’s 30 year old gutters and drainpipes and repairing a part of the roof. We’ll be glad we did this come the autumn.

Get your sea fix

This year, we’re visiting the Northumbrian coast for the first time. Fellow cockapoo owners have recommended some dog-friendly places to visit (and eat) and we’re staying in a cottage that’s managed by an award-winning lettings agency. It’s my dream to one day visit places such as New England. In the meantime, we’ll take the simpler route of jumping in the car in ‘old England’ and heading north. We should be there in around 4-5 hours and are looking forward to the slower pace of coastal living.

Dress simply

The loveliest thing about summer is being able to slip on a dress, dig your feet into sandals (or trainers if the weather’s a bit inclement – I’m loving the white trainers trend), grabbing a bag then heading out of the door. I don’t know about you, but I also think that summer is a time when you can afford to dress a little more casually; be comfortable; and be a little more sartorially relaxed.

What are your favourite summer hacks? Do let me know by replying in the comments below!


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Simplifying weekday meals

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I’ve written before about simplifying meal planning but – in the past week – we’ve had to ramp things up when it comes to making things simpler.

Mr G is recovering from major surgery on his back. As a result, he has been told not even to lift a full kettle, so I have been Chief Nurse, as well as being Head Cook and Bottle Washer.

Planning ahead

While Mr G was in hospital, I awoke very early one morning. Mulling things over, I decided to do some research on meal kits. Given that I’m still working full time during his recuperation, some of the things that he would normally do will now fall to me. And since I can’t be walking the dog and cooking the dinner at the same time, my logic was that getting a bit of help in the way of easy-to-prepare meals might be something to consider.

I don’t want to eat ready meals so….

Organic veggie boxes have been around for many years, but recipe boxes are a more recent phenomenon. I’d been aware of some of the ones that advertise extensively (e.g. Hello Fresh) but if you Google ‘recipe boxes’ up comes a whole raft of options. How on earth do you choose?

The Independent View

While undertaking my nocturnal scrolling, I came across this article from The Independent. Albeit around 18 months old, the article reviewed 12 of the best recipe boxes that were available at the time. I clicked on the links to find out more about the top 3 rated services: Gousto, Riverford and Yorkshire based Snap (northern slang for ‘food’).

Happily, the first two were still going strong but I wasn’t sure about Snap; perhaps it is no longer trading?

The product ranges

Here’s where you’d think it would be straightforward, but there are quite a few choices.

First up, the key question. Are you feeding four or two? Hmm. Well, neither. We are a family of three. Given that I like to take leftovers for lunch the following day, I decided to opt for the ‘family of four’ option.

Then, do you want dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, low carb, 10 minute meals, everyday favourites, global kitchen, plant based.. the list goes on! It certainly seems there’s something for everyone, albeit I would concede, this is not the cheapest way to shop.

My choice

I decided to try Gousto, which was offering 50% off the first order. That means we paid £23.88 for 4 x meals for four this week.

If you’re interested in doing the same, click on any of the Gousto links I’ve posted here and you’ll get the same deal (50% off your first order in any one month, then 30% off orders in the same month). Full disclaimer: If you do this, I’d also get £15 credit towards my next box (and you’d then be able to pass on the same offer to friends in your own network).

The Independent described this company as offering ‘tasty and innovative’ meals and I have to say the pictures looked appealing. My key question was this: would the meal kit emulate something I had cooked from scratch, or would there be a ‘ready meal’ quality to it?

In reflecting on my motivation, I wanted something that would:

  • Be quick to prepare (the recipes provide exactly the quantities required, so no time spent weighing ingredients)
  • Provide some variety, with different flavours, tastes and textures
  • Take the planning and thinking time down considerably: I just selected what looked appealing, added the recipe to my box and that was it

Delivery

The delivery options were straightforward; I could pay extra for a timed delivery (albeit within quite a long window or accept the box would arrive any time during the day but with no delivery charge. I decided to go for the ‘free’ delivery, since Mr G would be at home to receive it.

Whoops! On the day of delivery, I received the following via email….

“Unfortunately, due to a small operational issue we’ve had to move your delivery to the evening delivery slot.

Your box will still arrive tomorrow, just a little later than planned – between 6pm and 10pm.”

Then, surprise! The box arrived late afternoon (thank goodness, we might have been hungry)…

Packaging

I was curious to see to what extent the packaging would be recyclable. Even when cooking from scratch (my usual mode of operation), we still – as a household – create a lot of recycling waste.

The Gousto box did contain some cellophane and plastic-wrapped items (you can’t transport a mozzarella in a paper bag), but I didn’t feel the packaging was excessive. Indeed, the company’s information booklet states a solid commitment to reducing waste this year.

What was curious was the sheep’s wool insulation that encircled the food and worked, along with two ice blocks, to keep the food cool. If we bought enough boxes, we could insulate our loft!

Sheeps wool

The Proof of the Pudding

So, onto the main event.

Breakfast bar

Were the recipes easy to follow? Yes! Although they’re designed for two people, so you have to make sure you’ve doubled each ingredient to create the meal for four. That said, the liquid quantities caught me out – I automatically doubled the amount of water needed for my ‘Avo Taco’ smokey beans, then realised that I only needed 50% more liquid.

The ‘Avo Tacos’ were really tasty and passed the ‘home cooked’ taste test. Indeed, because you’re working with fresh ingredients and perfectly-measured herbs and spices, you’re still cooking from scratch.

But, the main question has to be, “What did it taste like?”

We really enjoyed this first meal. I halved the total amount of spices, as we don’t like things to be too hot. This meant that we enjoyed all the flavour without the heat.

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Tonight’s meal is a Cheesy Tomato Gnocchi Tray Bake, which I’ve started preparing. When I get home, all I’ll do is a bit of mixing and final assembly, bung the dish in the oven and prepare some greens as a side dish.

10 out of 10?

So, how would I rate Gousto?

Actually, I quite liked it. It was fun receiving the box and digging out the carefully curated ingredients. The recipes offered taste options that meant I could choose a variety of meal types over the four days and they included both cooked meals and options for salad-based recipes. I’d certainly give it 9/10 so far. What I have changed for next time is the quantities, having decided that recipes for 2 will feed 3 nicely.

As you can see from the link to the Tray Bake recipe, everything’s really clear; you even get a nutritional breakdown, which would be especially useful if you’re counting calories.

So, bring on tonight’s dinner… and let’s see what’s in store for next week!


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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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