Monthly Archives: September 2010

Hot and Sour Soup (or a soup for a cold)

I got this recipe a year or so ago from Delicious magazine. It’s become a staple in our house. As a busy person I appreciate that it’s quick and nourishing. As a lazy person I appreciate that it’s quick and nourishing and as a mother of a toddler who likes to wrap herself around my legs, I appreciate that even though it’s quick, it can be made in stages.

The joy is further deepened because you can adapt it according to:

How much you want to blow your sinuses to Kingdom come (you increase the heat).
Whether you are low carbing or not (if not you can add noodles).
How many people you are feeding. You can up the broth part by adding more stock, or just beef it up by adding more prawns or mushrooms or summat. It’s versatile.

Here is the recipe:


1 litre of stock, vegetable or chicken, cube fine
2 large chillis, halved (deseed them if you want to, I like the extra heat, also I’m lazy, have I mentioned, so I keep the seeds in, also less chance of rubbing your eyes and burning them OUT OF YOUR HEAD if you don’t de-seed them. Lisa I’m talking about you honey)
2 kaffir lime leaves, scrunched up and chucked in
3 tablespoons of fish sauce
2 lemongrass stalks, bruised(I use two teaspoons from a jar, cheaper too)
Juice of one lime
1 tablespoon of caster sugar

T’other ingredients:

125g oriental looking mushrooms
250g large raw prawns (it won’t be the end of the world if they’re ready cooked)
1 pak choi (I now use spinach, so much easier to eat and deal with)

200g noodles, leave out if you’re low carbing.

A hanky or tissue.

First you make the broth. Put all of the first lot of ingredients in a pan, cover and simmer. The recipe says to do it for four  minutes and then sieve and then you chuck out the chillis and what not. If you want the broth hotter, simmer for longer and/or keep the ingredients in for longer before sieving.

Strain the broth into another big pan.

(If you want, you can leave it now to cool down and either put it in the fridge for later/another day or freeze it.)

Add the other ingredients. If you’re using frozen prawns give them five minutes cooking time, then add the pak choi etc. Cook noodles according to packet instructions, you should be able to just add them in for the last two minutes if they’re regular Chinese noodles.

Slurp. Use the hanky to wipe your nose.

And yes Pete, I DID forget to put the noodles in this lunchtime!

Kiwi sheepskin boots

Three years ago,  during my first ‘country winter’, my friend Rosie, one of the moderators on I Want My Mum, the parenting website I co-run with The Analytical Armadillo, told me about Kiwi Sheepskin boots.  She fair raved about them, so much so that a rare (for me) thing happened. She ‘made’ me buy a pair.

Ever since I saw Pamela Anderson on a beach wearing a bikini and sheepskin boots, I’ve wanted a pair. Of sheepskin boots (I’ve already got the breasts, thank you).  I know, I know: makes no sense. Now that I live in the country I decided I positively needed warm boots. I mean, I have neoprene lined wellington boots, from  my days as Fishing Correspondent of the Independent (oh yes really).

Sheepskin boots have got a bad name in the last few years, mostly because you can get really cheap rip offs (i.e. not sheepskin at all). But you need to ignore all of this. If you need warm boots nothing beats sheepskin. Don’t think of them as high fashion items – they’re not, they’re not even a low fashion item, you missed the boat on that one; but rather think of them as what they are: practical, but nice, objects. To my mind, few things look more stupid than girls/women inadequately dressed on a very cold day.

And I thought this well before I became a mother, okay?

Kiwi sheepskin boots are really well priced. I got the Musketeer Ultimate Sheepskin boots and they now cost £107 odd including everything: P&P and customs. I think I paid about £90 for them. Who remembers. I got them in chocolate and they are rarely off my feet in the winter. They’re beautiful, much nicer than the website makes them look, although I never wear them with the cuff folded down, and I doubt you will too. But you can get simpler boots, shorter, different sole, for a shade under £68. That’s significantly cheaper than anywhere else I’ve found for real sheepskin.

A few things to note: I can’t walk long distances in mine. It’s all too ‘soft’ inside and your foot slips around. So for long walks, you really need proper walking boots. What they’re excellent for is cold winter days, leisurely walks, just being out and about. Not hiking.

The sizing: I got mine too big. The sheepskin compacts after a few wears so if you’re inbetween sizes, I’d counsel going to the smaller size. After a few season’s wear the sheepskin inside the foot chamber wears out, so buy new insoles for extra cosiness (these you can buy anywhere, they don’t need to come from there but do make sure you buy real sheepskin – not synthetic – or your feet will stink).

The service I got three winters ago was great.

Ines Rosales and her damn biscuits

Fantastic packaging and unfortunately what’s in them is just as nice.

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend spotted some biscuits in Waitrose. They were on special offer and instead of the usual £2.99 they were £1.99 (the offer has now ended, at least in my Waitrose, which is the only one that matters let’s face it).

The packaging was great, waxed semi-transparent paper and what looked like large wafery things inside (they are olive oil ‘tortas’ which just made me confused). I made a face and said “nah, they’re TWO QUID”. “But they might be great,” he retorted. I soldiered on with the shopping trolley and the purchase was not made.

But a week or so later, we did buy them, the Seville Orange ones. Even before we were out of the carpark I’d opened them and was sampling one.

My they were delicious. Flakey, but with sugar on the top and as more-ish as ‘stracci’ (Italian deep fried ribbons of pastry that are simply too dangerous to eat, they are the crack cocaine of pastry). I have no idea how Ines cooks her damn biscuits but they taste deep fried. On the website they go on about how olive oil is really good for you, so I reckon the must be. They’re odd though. I mean the Seville Orange ones were sweet, but not sure how you should eat them, with coffee? On their own.

By the time we got home I had eaten three of them whilst I pondered this. I still don’t know.

What I do know is that they come in various versions and you absolutely should never buy them.

Nice gloves for a cold day

M&S ‘Autograph’ gloves in black, lined in cashmere, which is turned back here so you can see.

Close up of the lining for those who are really paticular, like me. Although it looks thick, it isn’t and the gloves manage to be rather ‘fino’ as we say in Italian whilst also being very warm. Nice.

Two winters ago, I was in London for the day (that seems a sad sentence in a way, as I lived in London for most of my life and yet, and yet, it also makes me happy as I love Suffolk – where I live now. So I guess you’d call that a bittersweet collection of words) and got caught out on a day so cold, I couldn’t carry my bags. I had no gloves with me and in a fit of extravagant desperation, I walked into Marks and Spencer’s to buy some gloves.

In truth, I was after the same sort of gloves I’d bought in M&S  many years previously: sheepskin gloves. I have no idea why I’d bought sheepskin gloves. I wasn’t a sheepskin sort of girl (am now, watch out for my entry on sheepskin boots ‘n’ slippers in a few weeks’ time). But I had discovered that they were super warm when I rode my bike and also those particular ones had been fantastic value. But my lovely buff coloured sheepskin gloves had gotten a hole, you know the sort: the stitching had started to come undone and I’d done nothing about it until more and more stitches undid and as the proverb says, where once one stitch was needed, now nine were.

But M&S had no sheepskin gloves that day. They had simple leather gloves, which I didn’t want (not warm enough) or all manner of what I call Bridget Jones type gloves: knitted and full of whimsy.

Instead I spied some Autograph cashmere lined leather gloves. These were exactly the opposite of what I thought I wanted, but I tried them on and was sold. They fitted beautifully, they retained some sensitivity but they were so warm it was like I’d just put my hands in a warm bath. I bought them and, for an impulsive purchase, they ended up being a fantastic buy at £25 because they soon became the gloves I wore every day. Warm, practical  but just that bit posh. I like that because often my hands are the only posh part of me.

But then, one day last year, in a blur of getting the baby in and out of the car, I lost one.

I need to pause here to tell you about another fantastic discovery I made last year. A discovery that the loss of one of my gloves, in the same week that my eldest lost her beloved Mimi the Mouse, spurred me to make. You know those Cash’s name tapes? Well you can order them to say “If found, please call XXXXX”. I got some made and have both Mimi the Mouses (eldest’s was found in the laundry) are now ‘microchipped’, as are my beloved Pashminas (more on pashminas another day). Because my chocolate brown one ply pashmina is lost, lost, lost…

I haven’t actually, sewn them into my new gloves yet though.

Anyway,  miraculously, given that shops have a habit of making great things and never repeating them, M&S sell the gloves again this year. Here is the link to them on line, although on-line they only seem to sell them in brown. In real life they come in black, purple or chocolate brown. They are lined in cashmere and are really warm. They’ve gone up to £29.50. But still, you really can’t ask more of a glove.

So don’t.

Update October 2012.

Obviously the link above doesn’t work anymore. Here is the link to this year’s offering in red, purple or grey. Or here in black. They’ve now gone up to £35 which makes them a better investment than a savings’ account these days.


Oh look at my lovely plate of dried things. It’s like Harvest time. At noon o’clock we have dried orange slices and rose petals, going clockwise we have dried sage and tarragon, cherry tomatoes, aubergines and apples. Martha Stewart will be wondering if she gave birth to me and abandoned me without remembering.

This is the time of year, apparently, when we have a glut of stuff and need to start preserving it. In Italy we’d be doing the tomatoes about now, cookin’ them up, sieving them, passing them through o’Moulinex and slapping the resultant sludge into bottles we’d been saving all year. The entire neighbourhood would smell of tomatoes.

I don’t do that. Mostly cos I don’t grow tomatoes and let’s face it, Cirio does passata for me.

What I do do at this time of year is get the dehydrator out and start drying out anything that takes my fancy.

What’s the point of dehydrating stuff? Well it’s a way of preserving things, if you don’t want to/can’t freeze it, or make it into chutneys ‘n’ stuff. For certain things – mushrooms for instance – it’s absolutely the only thing, as far as I’m concerned, to do with them. But the great thing about a dehydrator is you can also dry your own fruit in it, so you can make your own banana chips, apple chips, you can dry blueberries, pineapple, whatever you goddam well like. In certain parts of the world that will remain nameless (America) they also dry bits of meat to make beef jerky.

I don’t do this.

But you can also dry your herbs before they die off for the winter. Those that do. Apparently some don’t but that sentence alone has taken me to the very edge of my horticultural knowledge.

So much so that I don’t actually know if growing herbs is horticulture or something else.

Anyway. You can spend hundreds of pounds on dehydrators. And if you have an allotment, and lots of larder space and lots of jam jars and are that sort of person, then by all means spend hundreds on a dehydrator that has drawers and you can set the temperature etc. At the other end, you can easily do all of this in an oven, set very low. Disadvantages of that (unless you have an Aga, in which case you will already be a smug bastard) are that unless you have a very energy efficient oven (I do) you can end up spending loads on electricity cos you need to dry things out for about 12 hours.

And it also means you can’t use the oven for anything else, unless you have two ovens (I do, do you hate me yet?). I make fruit leathers in the oven and it takes FOREVER, in the dehydrator it takes half the time.

In between all of this are cheap dehydrators which is what I’ve got. You can get a really good one from Lakeland. It works really well. It’s big though, it has a footprint probably equivalent to an elephant’s. It has trays which you stack. It’s piss easy to use and clean and if you want to make fruit leathers (or meringues come to that) you just use some baking parchment over the trays. It only has an on/off button and only one temperature: 85 degrees.

A dehydrator really isn’t for everyone. But I’ve got small children who eat a lot of banana chips and fruit leathers and I just like making my own. You can chop up dried fruit and also put it on your breakfast cereal if you don’t want to just eat it as it is, but I love that too, it makes a great snack. Somehow naughtier than just eating a normal apple…I’m so sad.

You can also dry veg and just chop it up and put it into stews and sauces. I do this with aubergines and courgettes (you can also do beans, almost anything really, peas you can also do and use them in caterpaults). It’s handy when you’ve got some veg left that you’re not going to use, but don’t want to waste. Dried aubergine slices cost about £5 in deli shops just cos they look pretty and are presented in cellophane bags. Also it makes the house smell amazingly of whatever you’re drying so you know, like a two in one product..

Look at my little  jewels. Remember the little cherry tomatoes up top? Here they are under extra Catholic olive oil in my favourite jam jars, Bonne Maman. That’s my vegetable (raised) bed you can see in the background. Smell the smugness.


Batteries for Christmas presents and every day life

This isn’t going to be my last post with Christmas in the title. I warn you.

But this is just  a short little entry, without reference to my childhood about a good place to get cheap batteries.

7DAYSHOP is where I get all my batteries, and have done for years. Its based in Guernsey so lots of things are VAT free. I buy a box of 40 Duracell AA batteries for just over £13. Don’t even get me started on the price difference on CR2032s which are those ‘coin’ lithium batteries you need for so many things.

Postage is generally free, so when you next need batteries, just be a tiny bit more organised and get them from there.

Spicy butternut squash and coconut soup: soup for a cold day or for when you have a cold.

I’m in the mood for soup. I’ve got a cold. I’m cold. I’m fairly miserable, which my partner tells me is pretty standard nowadays (“you’re disproportionately miserable” he whispers to me in my ear).

Soup can only help can’t it? Plus it’s vegetables.

I came across this recipe last year. I can’t remember where from but when I feel better I will attempt to find out because it makes me REALLY CROSS when people don’t credit recipes and say “oh here is my recipe for XYZ”. I know recipes are all nicked from somewhere anyway, but as a professional writer, I care very much about the value of words. If you know where something comes from, sodding credit it you teef.

So this isn’t my recipe although I’ve adapted it to suit my own selfish means. I’ve adapted it in a very small way, because I’m just not that clever to do a handbrake turn with a recipe and completely reinvent it.

This is what you need:

A butternut squash, it really doesn’t matter what the size is since they’re all bred nowadays to be ‘supermarket size’ anyway. Peel it, which is a bastard job, and cut it into chunks. I cut it into chunks and then peel it, actually.
4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of garam masala
1-2 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes(one gives it a nice warmth, two a kick, I’ve not tried more than that. The original recipe calls for three dried whole chillies which you cook with the squash, then take out two of them before the blending stage. I used dried cos we always have in)
6 garlic cloves, peeled
600ml chicken stock – made with a cube, for goodness sake. I’m all for chicken broth made from proper dead chickens when you’re using it as the actual stuff you’re eating, for pastina in brodo for instance but when you’re chucking it into a soup, a cube is just fine. I use Kallo organic cos it makes me feel better.
400ml coconut milk (the original said 200ml, but all the coconut  milk I find comes in 400ml tins and if you use 200ml you end up wasting the other 200ml. I think this is a shame, so I use the whole tin, it makes for a slightly creamier soup, but since when was that a bad idea? The point is, if you have a use for the other 200ml of coconut milk, use less and tell me what that use is).
Juice of one lime (not essential, so don’t panic if you don’t have it, but it adds a nice taste and has useful vitamin C).

Preheat oven to 200C.

Take 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, put in a small receptacle and into that put your spices and chilli. Mix around and then drizzle over the squash. Put it in the oven for 20mins. After 20 mins scatter over the garlic and cook for another 10 mins, after which the squash should be lovely and squashy and soft, if not give it a bit more.

Whilst that is doing, use the other two tablespoons of oil to soften the onion. Do it with the lid on. You want lovely transparent onion, all soft and relaxed, not mean and burned and angry.

Scrape the squash and all the spicy bits into a blender. Add the onion. Pour in a bit of the chicken stock so that it’s easier to blend the whole lot up. Blend it up. Brr brr brrr so that the whole lot is thick and velvety and GOOD.

Put into a pan, add the rest of the stock and the coconut milk. Heat it up, add lime juice, season if you want to (I never do, stock cubes have so much sodding seasoning already) eat it and think of nice autumn things and what you want for Christmas.

This just isn’t the most interesting picture, I mean, it could be custard. But I forgot to take a pic at any other, more photogenic point in making it. What would have been ideal is a picture of someone in knitted fingerless gloves, nursing a mug of this and wearing slouchy socks, kinda Toast-catalogue styley. Although nursing these days means a different thing to me, so I mean: holding the mug, not breastfeeding it.

Making sourdough: what equipment do you need?

As has been mentioned before, I like gadgets, I like buying new kit. But there are some things that are more important than others. Making sourdough bread should be about connecting you to an easier, but also harder, time. When things were simpler, but more effort went into them. I promise you that once you start making and eating sourdough on a regular basis, your life changes in little ways.

Yeh, yeh, whateva. But until that happens: shopping.

What to keep your sourdough starter in?

You need to be a bit careful about what you keep it in. A clean glass jar will do, but it has to have room for the starter to grow. If you refresh it to capacity, there’s a very real possibility that your starter could explode the jar as it ferments. I use a Kilner jar. You can use a large jam jar. You can keep your starter in plastic of course, but yuk.

My starter in its Kilner jar, aka the mothership

Okay what other bits do I need?

Disappointingly little, really. If you want a past-time that involves spending loads of money on kit, you need to take up fishing or golf. Things that I use and think are really useful are:

Large stainless steel bowls that I bought in Ikea once. Actually that’s a lie, I inherited them from my boyfriend when we moved in together. But you can buy stainless steel bowls anywhere. Don’t spend loads and bigger rather than smaller but not so big you could spin yourself round in them. But don’t sweat it if you don’t have the, any big old bowls would do.

A dough scraper: absolutely worth buying if you don’t have one. When the dough is really frisky, there are times it’s hard to handle and I knead it using just the dough scraper, moving the dough around as I go. Without wishing to start sounding like an ad for it, ours is from Ikea. It’s stainless steel and I also inherited it when my boyfriend/partner blah de blah moved in together. See “living with a boy” as Monica from Friends once put it, has it uses. I recommend using a stiff (rather than those super flexi ones) dough scraper, insofar as I’m experienced enough to recommend anything bready. They make it easier to handle the dough and easier to scrap up bits of dough that have dried on any surface you’ve been working on.

Bannetons or proving baskets – covered in full here. You can make sourdough without them, but they make life so much easier and sweeter.

You also need something to cook the bread on. You’ll have baking trays, so use them. I use my Mermaid baking trays which I also use for tons of other stuff: not cheap but I bake a lot and they last years. I love the older Mermaid trays, the anodised aluminum ones rather than the non stick ones. Non stick, I find a bit scary. Again, any old baking tray will do, what’s important is to preheat it.

Top Gourmet chopping board with my scraper. 

Top Gourmet chopping boards – I really rate these. As chopping boards but also as surfaces to make your bread on. I have the big size one (40cm by 30cm) and I can move it around the kitchen as I work. You may not work like that and working on your regular kitchen work top may be fine for you, but remember that sourdough is hours in the making, which means it could be taking up that bit of work surface for half the day. I oil my board before each kneading and rest the bread on it (covered with an oiled bowl, so I lift the dough up, oil underneath where it was laying, then knead etc). So any chopping board will do in theory, but these are good: light and therefore easy to move around, hygenic (you can dishwasher them if you want to, bear this in mind when ordering the really big ones) and they store easily as they’re so thin. These are the future of chopping boards as far as I’m concerned. Plus they’re black so chic in my book.

What you really don’t need when you first start out:

You really don’t need a peel if you use bannetons, you just flip the bread out onto the tray (always preheat the tray).

You don’t need a bread stone. But when you get one, you’ll need a peel.

Special dough hand whisks: a fork will do just as well.

You don’t need a grignette or lame, just use a bread knife.

You don’t need a couche proving cloth until you start making baguettes.

Save all that stuff as incentives to go further into making sourdough and for present material.

Gobbledegook stamp

I first came across this when I was writing a piece for the Guardian’s Education supplement about What to Take With You to University. Which I researched heavily because I never went. I was far too busy joining the army and learning how to strip down my personal weapon (a Sterling Sub-Machine gun, bullet capacity: 32, although only a numbskull would load it with anymore than 28) in my “noddy suit” (NBC suit – nucleur, biological, chemical suit) in a gas chamber with actual tear gas being pumped in. And interrogate people. And pick locks. And avoid assault courses.

So, to get to the point. You know how everyone is so obsessed with not getting their identity stolen theseadays? How you must shred everything that has any personal information on it whatsoever? Well, this is easy to do if you have an industrial shredder attached to a belt around your waist and have something you can do with the shredded paper (you can’t recycle it), such as keep a rabbit or a gerbil or run a mail order business (you can use if for packing, although be aware if you use a strip shredder – one which shreds paper into long strips – it is theoretically possible to piece together a document again, better to go for a cross-shredder).  But otherwise, it can mean you end up with lots of bits of paper hanging around for the mythical day when you lug the top-heavy shredder out from under the desk, plug it in, and shred everything you’ve saved up.

Obviously, you should shred bank statements (and wow, what’s that like, to not keep bank statements??) and just about anything if you’re Andy Coulson. But lots of things just need you to obliterate your name and address.

This is where the Gobbledegook Stamp (be aware this is the name I have given it) comes in. When I first featured it, Lakeland had just started stocking it (some of the reviews for it on the Lakeland site are not promising, saying you have to ‘stamp over the address a few times’, well der, yes, big deal?). They weren’t sure they’d carry on stocking it and I had to grapple with them slightly to let them let me feature it: it’s now a best seller. You just happily stamp over your personal details and then put the letter in the recycling as per. You can get replacement ink pads for it at any stationers although I’ve not had to replace mine yet.

And with just over 100 days til Christmas, it’d make a very unglamorous little gift for someone paranoid in your life.

Arkansas bread

I have a habit of not being able to say certain words correctly. Often I’ve said a word the same way for years, in the privacy of my head, but no-one knows I can’t pronounce it properly.  It’s rarely a problem unless I have to suddenly say that word out loud and can’t get away from it and then people start pointing and laughing. And because of this, I often get words mixed up.

It started with ‘calzolaio’ and ‘colazione’. When I was a little girl, and in Italy with my Daddie (I feel compelled to point out that my parents are still together, my mother was just back home in central London, this wasn’t a ‘summer with the estranged parent kinda thing), I remember seeing a sign saying ‘calzolaio’ (cobblers, shoe-menders). The next day I said to my father “I’ve found a place we can go to for breakfast (colazione).” You can guess the rest.

Like a lot of stupid people, I used to pronounce ‘Arkansas’ just as it looks ‘Ar-Kan-sas’, instead of Ar-kan-saw. In my head, I still do.  I’m not related to George Bush, I promise.

What has any of this to do with bread?

In the search for more sourdough recipes, I recently bought Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters. Loads of people, far more experienced bakers than I, rave about this book. So I in no way mean to detract from that. The fact that I didn’t get on with it – I didn’t – is entirely due to my own failings.

It’s a big book with almost no photographs. I need pictures to help me with the words where food is concerned. Where almost anything is concerned. The way Whitley makes his sourdough is also different from the way Dan Lepard makes his. I can see how people would think sourdough is even more complicated than it is after reading Bread Matters. I just couldn’t get my head round it and I almost ended up crying.

Anyway, in it was, and I’m imagining still is, a recipe for Arkatena bread. Which I immediately, and persistently read as Ar-kan-sas bread,  hence the name of this post. I fancied the look of it because it contains gram (chickpea) flour, which I had in and wanted to find a use for. But I could see instantly that I’d never be able to follow the recipe for it, so before I threw myself down and started kicking my feet into the wooden floor, I decided to bloody well vary the recipe to suit myself.

This is what I did.

I used 300g white levain starter

to this I added

50g gram flour
50g wholemeal flour
300g white bread flour
7g sea salt, ground up in a pestle and mortar
300g cold water

I mixed the starter up with the water, then added the flours and salt and then kneaded it for 10-15 seconds at a time, resting it for 10 mins. Then kneading it for 10-15 seconds and resting it for another ten minutes, then kneading it for 10-15 seconds and resting it for another ten minutes then repeating but this time resting it for

30 mins
1 hour
1 hour
1 hour

Then I shaped it and put it in a banneton to prove overnight at 4 degrees. Then I cooked it at 220 for 20 mins or so.

It was probably the most ‘worthy’ loaf I’ve ever made, in other words it was quite dense. And it smelled very ‘yeasty’ despite me not adding any yeast. It would be very, very good with some soup or cheese and chutney. I’m not sure I’d like it for sandwiches.

The Arkansas bread as I’ve named it, with a big cross slash to celebrate the forthcoming visit of the Pope.  Yeh right.
The crumb. Pretty impressive save, me thinks.