Saturday, 29 June 2013

Veg box round up with cauliflower cheese recipe

I am still enjoying getting to grips with seasonal vegetables from my veg box. Last week I went for a mini box with extra salad. I didn't have any new or unusual ingredients to contend with, which was a bit of a relief! I had another go at the kale and chilli pasta sauce which I attempted a few weeks ago. This time I remembered the chilli! It went from being palatable but bland to delicious. I very much recommend this recipe, especially if you add some crispy bacon. Yum!

I made cauliflower cheese again, mainly because I am very fond of cheese. Probably much more fond than is good for me. This is not a recipe for anyone attempting to lose weight! (Or for those with a lactose intolerance - sorry DH!) There are lots of different recipes for cauliflower cheese; this is mine. I got lost in a maze of metric to imperial conversion tables. Did you know English fluid ounces are different to American ones? It gave me a headache, so I've stuck to metric measures for this recipe!


1 medium cauliflower

For the topping:

large handful of breadcrumbs
handful of grated cheese

For the cheese sauce:

350ml milk
25g unsalted butter
25g plain flour
85g grated mature cheddar cheese
ground nutmeg
Half a teaspoon of mustard


Remove the leaves from the cauliflower and chop into florets. Cook by boiling or steaming until tender. This will take about ten minutes.

While the cauliflower is cooking, make the cheese sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a gentle heat. Once it is melted, add the flour and stir it together for about a minute. Remove from the heat.

Add the milk a little at a time, stirring well after each addition so that it's all mixed in. Once the milk has all been added, put back onto a gentle heat and bring slowly to a boil. It's important to stir all the time, or the sauce will go lumpy. If it does, a good whisk will usually sort it out. When the sauce is bubbling gently, add the cheese, mustard and a shake of nutmeg and simmer for a couple of minutes.

Put the tender and steaming cauliflower into a shallow ovenproof dish. Pour over the sauce. Mix together the breadcrumbs and cheese and throw them over the sauce. Put the whole thing into an oven at 200C for about twenty minutes until the topping is golden and crispy. Try not to think of the calories while eating!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

I blame Springwatch...

The influence of Springwatch is lingering on in our house. For the uninitiated, Springwatch is a wildlife programme in the UK which makes heavy use of webcams in nest boxes and beautiful wildlife films. DS, who is ten, was absolutely enthralled and has now become fascinated by wildlife and wildlife photography.

While we were out for a walk we came across a whole load of bumblebees on some beautiful blue flowers. I am ashamed to say that I don't actually know what they were! DS took these shots with my phone:

On Saturday DS and I had the afternoon together. He spent the entire afternoon hanging out the upstairs window with my camera, trying to take snapshots of the birds on the feeders. Despite using a tripod, these photos are a little wobbly as he was taking them from a distance. He moved the feeders close together so he could take take photos of both at the same time. This woodpigeon took full advantage!

The sparrows and blue tits obliged by posing as well.

Not content with still photos, DS decided that he wanted to set up a webcam and get some live action. He kept on about this for long enough to convince his Dad he was serious, so DH found an old webcam and set up this strange contraption in the back garden.

The cable leads to a laptop on a garden chair. We have birds in our garden who are used to our strange antics, and they blithely took absolutely no notice of the camera. The output from the webcam was really poor quality, so DS invested his own carefully put aside savings in a newer model. He has only had one 45 minute session with this, but there was a little bit of action:

It's not exactly David Attenborough standard, and the bird is coyly hiding behind the feeder, but I am so proud of the persistence that DS has shown. He has shown patience that I didn't know he was capable of and is learning lots about our native bird-life. He has joined the RSPB so we are planning a few trips to their reserves during the fast-approaching summer holidays.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Chive flower vinegar

I enjoy growing and using my own herbs. I particularly like chives and use them in lots of dishes. However, until this year I have always thrown away the flowers. Recently I was indulging in a spot of blog-hopping when I came across this post by Lili at "creative savv" on making chive flower vinegar. Lili's blog is a very inspiring mix of thrifty makes and practical advice with some beautiful photography. She has kindly allowed me to share her instructions, with the philosophy that blogging is all about sharing wisdom.

This is a very easy way to turn distilled vinegar into a "foodie" product. Distilled vinegar is 9p per 100ml in the supermarket, and my supermarket certainly doesn't sell any herb vinegars. The nearest equivalent is white wine vinegar which costs 22p per 100ml.

Once you have collected the chive flowers they need to be washed and dried. I don't have a salad spinner so I left them on some kitchen towel for a little while.


I didn't have as many flowers as I thought I did. You can keep them in the fridge in a sealed bag for a few days while other buds open, but I wasn't patient enough!

The flowers need to go into a clean jar. Ideally the jar should be two-thirds full. Mine wasn't quite up to that level. Then fill the jar with distilled or white vinegar.

Then simply leave the jar somewhere where you will remember to poke the blossoms under the vinegar twice a day. It is far too pretty to leave in a cupboard! You need to leave it for at least a week; the oniony flavour will become more intense the longer you leave it. After ten days mine looked like this:

Isn't that a beautiful colour? Once you are happy with the flavour the vinegar needs to be strained. It makes very good vinaigrette and is apparently excellent with fish and chips. I was thinking of gifting it, but I don't think I want to part with it!

Friday, 21 June 2013

Using up those vegetables!

I had a lovely lot of vegetables in my second veg box. A lot of the veg was different to my usual supermarket fare and I had varying degrees of success in rendering it acceptable to the rest of the family.

There was a squash with a name like a martial art  - red hokkaido. This went in a "winter squash and feta gratin". The recipe for this is available here. DD and I liked this, but the menfolk were less enamoured. I always have difficulty with squash and would appreciate any suggestions.

The spring greens went into a  beef stirfry with some of the mushrooms (recipe here). This also had mixed reactions, mostly because the meat was too chewy.

The cauliflower went into a cauliflower cheese with breadcrumb topping. This was seriously nice. It's just a shame it is seriously calorific as well!

The box included baby courgettes, which had me stumped. I still had a courgette loaf in the freezer from last week's offerings. I decided to try courgette crisps, or zucchini chips for any non-British readers. There are recipes in British English here, and in non-British English here! These really didn't work very well. I think I sliced them too thickly and then drowned them in olive oil so they didn't dry out properly. They were tasty, and the kids ate them within five minutes, but they weren't crisps. Nor chips!

Fortunately the carrots, onions and lettuce were much easier to deal with! At the moment I have kept my wastage fairly low; one small carrot went mouldy and I still have a surfeit of onions. The next box has been delivered. I went for a mini version this time with extra salad. I am happy to keep posting my round ups if anyone is interested, or if you are getting bored with "fifty ways with cabbage" then let me know!

Monday, 17 June 2013

Appreciating teachers

* Warning - this is in the nature of a rant! Those of a nervous disposition should look away now! *

I very much appreciate the work that teachers do. I value education to the extent that I chair the Governing Body of DS's primary school. I see firsthand the hard work, commitment and dedication that teachers put into the children that they care for. 

What I do not appreciate is being told by another mother that I should be contributing towards a class present for his teacher and supporting staff. She is suggesting ten pounds per child. I am very fortunate in life; I could spare that sum. Others could not through no fault of their own, but are now feeling pressurised to do so.

DS and I shall be doing what we always do. We shall work together to produce something homemade and hopefully edible. The effort required will show how much we appreciate all that his teacher has done for him this year.

* Rant over - you may now come out from behind that cushion! *

Friday, 14 June 2013

Springwatch withdrawal symptoms

We really enjoy Springwatch in this family. (For my non-UK readers, this post may not make a lot of sense, so feel free to ignore it!) It always reminds me of holidays, as we used to take our family breaks in the summer half term. The children would be given special dispensation to stay up and watch Springwatch in their pyjamas, on the strict understanding that they went Straight To Bed afterwards!

This year we particularly enjoyed watching the webcams. On Tuesday I kept them going while doing the ironing, and actually saw a redstart chick fledge. This is a major event in the world of Springwatch. I quickly tweeted this to Springwatch, and my tweet was broadcast over the webcam! I know this sounds very sad, and I seriously need to get a life, but this made me very happy. Springwatch has now run it's course for the year, and we are finding ways to avoid webcam cold turkey.

DS loved the webcams so much that he has plans to save up and buy his own. In the meantime I have found some other nest cams on the internet. There is a very good one at the Dyfi Osprey Project which shows the ospreys featured on Springwatch. The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has quite a few webcams on different  reserves. They are listed here for any other nest cam addicts suffering withdrawal symptoms!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Veg box round up

I have enjoyed the challenge of incorporating different types of veg into our diet. The most interesting was kale. My children and any type of cabbage-style vegetable do not mix. However, I had a go at this pasta sauce which is for kale or it's cousin, cavalo nero. The recipe doesn't give any quantities at all, so I winged it. I used a small pot of single cream and a handful of parmesan-style value hard cheese. I rather think that the fat in the recipe might negate the health benefits of the kale. (The website for the recipe isn't the veg box scheme that I am using.)

It turned out to be a very vivid green, almost luminous! You can definitely sense the chlorophyll. I added some crispy bacon but I still thought it tasted a bit bland. Then I realised that I'd left out the chilli. Doh! But I had four clean plates at the end, so it must have been OK. Or my children are humouring me...

The children actually ate asparagus as well. We had it dipped in poached eggs, which strangely worked quite well. The season is more or less over now, so they are spared asparagus for another year.

We used up all the salad in various guises, and ate spinach in fish pie. We have eaten one courgette loaf, and one is in the freezer. All I have left are some carrots and onions. The carrots will go in veggie chilli tomorrow. I'm not worried about the onions because I had half a bag in the fridge before the veg box arrived, and now I only have three left.

I also spent an inordinate amount of time in the veg aisle of the supermarket finding prices for veg. I did a comparison with both organic and non-organic produce. 

Organic first! Even though I go to a big local supermarket in a large town, they didn't have all the different varieties of organic veg, so I couldn't do a valid comparison. However, my gut feeling after looking at the prices is that it would have been slightly more expensive to get them from the supermarket.

The non-organic veg worked out to be £8.94, and my box came to £12.25. I used the cheapest veg I could find for my test. This is more or less what I expected, I never thought this would be a cost-saving exercise!  For me it is a lesson in seasonal living, learning to cook in a different way and educating my children.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The wildlife is friendly...

A few days ago a friend and I went for a walk. Not a gentle stroll in the park type of walk, but a proper "put on your walking boots and take your water bottle" type of walk. We are attempting to get fit, and have been marching around various parts of the local area with determined expressions on our faces. This week we stomped all the way around Wakehurst Place, stopped for coffee and cake, (OK, not necessarily helpful), and walked back round the other way. If anyone is interested, that came to five miles. That isn't a huge amount, but we are building up. I did feel compelled to stop occasionally and take some photos. (Not to catch my breath of course!)

I love daisies. Kathleen in "You've Got Mail" calls them "such a cheerful flower" and I think that is spot on. You can't help feeling happy when looking at a field full of daisies.


This little guy was hoping to share our cake.

While we were walking by the lake we met this family of goslings. We stood quietly to one side to let them pass, but the goslings seemed to think we might be food. Mother Goose was not amused, initially convinced we were intent on kidnapping her charges, but fortunately decided that we were harmless. Mind you, the sight of two almost middle-aged women running from an irate goose would probably have enlivened someone's day!

Friday, 7 June 2013

The veg box arrives!

Today was the day of my first veg box delivery. I'd spent the morning at the mercy of the dentist so I was glad of something to cheer me up in the afternoon! I'd ordered a small box, which turned out to be fairly big. It contained:
  • 200g kale
  • 5 carrots
  • asparagus
  • mushrooms
  • 2 courgettes
  • large bag baby spinach (more toddler than baby!)
  • large bag mixed salad leaves
  • 3 large onions
At the moment I am thinking of fish pie to use up the spinach, courgette loaf, asparagus dipped in poached eggs and a pasta sauce with the kale. I've found a recipe for the pasta sauce; if it is any good I will let you know.

I don't intend to get too obsessive about this. If I need to top up with a few bits from the supermarket then I will. I also hope to do a price comparison with the supermarket. Although I may get a few strange looks!

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Artistic garb

This week has been art week at school for DS. I am sure many ten year old boys love art. DS is not one of them! He would much rather do a whole week of maths or science; in fact, probably anything else. He is colour blind, and finds art incredibly frustrating.

Tomorrow he has to dress up as an artist, or as something inspired by a painting. This produced much discussion in our house. His sister thought he should put on a hoody, carry a spray can and go as Banksy, the elusive graffiti artist.  As an essentially law-abiding citizen, DS was not keen. I suggested playing with face paints and going as the tormented soul from Munch's "The Scream". He wasn't terribly happy with that idea either!

Image from Wikipedia
In the end we plumped for modern art, and came up with this:

This is very loosely based on Mondrian's "Composition" series. I have seen one of the originals in the Tate Modern in London and, to be honest, I was a bit nonplussed by it. However, it was remarkably easy to imitate with coloured felt and insulation tape! I should think Mondrian would be turning in his grave, but now I have an excuse to take the children to see the original.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Ordering a veg box

In one of those strange coincidences, DH and I have both been independently thinking that it is time for us to order a veg box. For those who are slightly bewildered by the term, a veg box scheme delivers a weekly box of seasonal, hopefully local, probably organic vegetables. DH is thinking about sustainability, and I have been encouraged to think seasonally by various bloggers. Wannabe Sybil has been recounting her adventures with her veg boxes with her customary wit and made me rethink my shopping habits.

Up to a few years ago we were part of a well known veg box scheme in the UK. We stopped for two reasons:
  • It wasn't based locally, so the veg was trucked up from the West Country to our local franchisee.
  • I was absolutely rubbish at using up the vegetables. I often found that I was wasting them which kind of defeated the object of the exercise.
At the moment our regular vegetable consumption consists of frozen peas, frozen sweetcorn, salad, onions and potatoes with the odd carrot thrown in. Not exactly seasonal, interesting or local. Of course the ideal solution would be to grow our own vegetables. Unfortunately we just don't have the space. We do grow some beans, carrots and onions as well as assorted types of fruit, but in nothing like the quantities needed to sustain a family of four.

So I have gone ahead and ordered a small box from a local company. It arrives on Friday and I have been devising ways of using the veg. I am DETERMINED not to waste any this time.  It will be a challenge! I already make out a weekly menu plan; I think I am going to have to be a bit more flexible and inventive than I usually am.

I know that organic food is more expensive than non-organic produce. I am also aware that a veg box would be considered a luxury by a lot of people. I am not judging anyone else's food choices, just starting to consider my own.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Ripple cushion finish

A few months ago DD asked for a crochet cushion to go in her bedroom which was due a makeover. Bright pink is seriously uncool when you are thirteen. Apparently. She chose the colours to match her new duvet cover. (Note the ongoing owl theme!)
The pattern is from "Cute and Easy Crochet" by Nicki Trench.

I really recommend this book. It has lovely clear instructions with diagrams for the likes of me who need books with pictures! Nicki has a blog as well which has lots of yarny goodness. (Thanks Dorothy for the link!)

I have so enjoyed this project. The ripple part was relatively easy, but the finishing off took a bit of doing. It took me FOUR tries to get the two halves joined up. They still don't match perfectly, don't zoom in on the pictures!

DD really likes it, which is a bit of a relief. Her room was painted over the bank holiday weekend. Once we lifted the carpet it was obvious that it had reached the end of a long and useful life, so we have ordered a replacement. This is lilac. It was very cheap, but in no way will it match the bright pink curtains. Time for me to learn to make curtains!