Category Archives: Useful things to know

The very best tomato sauce for pasta.

In Italy, August is the month of  ‘i pomodori’. Where they make pasta sauce for the whole coming year. The tomatoes are boiled, ‘passati’ (literally ‘passed’ through a sieve), reboiled and bottled. There is a lovely video here which shows you.

Because it’s quite a job, it tends to be done with everyone pitching in. It’s very low-tech (or used to be). Because the raw materials are the sweetest tomatoes the salsa you get (or passata) is incredible.

I never hoped to reproduce that in the UK, but my mother makes a very keen contender in her kitchen, in central London. She has even made it in my kitchen. I have tried to replicate it, I have watched her do it. I have bought the exact same ingredients as her, but it’s never the same.

If I have frozen salsa, and I serve it up on some pasta at a later date, my children can tell, immediately, if it’s ‘Nonna’s salsa’ or mine. They say her secret ingredient is salt, and love. And it’s true I tend to under salt things. For this I didn’t and went large with the salt.

It was a secret shame of mine, that I couldn’t make salsa as good as hers or any of my Italian relatives. Not because there is any shame in it really, but because, well, I cook a lot and you’d think this simple thing would not be beyond me. I tried cooking with plum peeled tinned tomatoes, chopped tomatoes,  fresh tomatoes, roasted tomatoes (this does work very well but is another layer of work), passata, all of the above and added tomato puree to it…but nothing came close. It all tasted too ‘new’ and didn’t have that complex taste, it always had a ridge of acidity, and none of the thickness of my family’s salsa.

“You needa to cooka it for a long time,” my Ma says – to take the acid out of the tomatoes. But whenever I tried I burnt it.

This year, I decided I really needed to step up. My mum and all the female relatives who hold the secret to good salsa are all…getting on.

So this is what I did. It’s so simple I am embarrassed I never tried it before and you will be disappointed there is no real secret recipe. Well there is. The secret is it’s really simple.

Warning, you really need a slow cooker and I think this goes some way to compensate for the fact that you are not using super red, sweet tomatoes from southern Italy. I have this one and it is a wonderful bit of kit which I use regularly and thoroughly recommend.

You take:

A jar of passata, I use Cirio’s Passata Rustica, 680g

One onion

A big pinch of sea salt

A clove or two of garlic if you like, chopped

Some very good olive oil (the better the better) – don’t skimp, this gives the sauce flavour

That’s it. Don’t add water or anything else. You finely chop the onion and fry it in the olive oil. I do this in my slow cooker as it has a saute function. When soft, you add the garlic if using and cook for a minute or so. It is at this point I add the salt but you can add it at any point, even at the very end, but give it a good stir through.

If you can’t saute in your slow cooker, and have been doing this on the stove top in a pan, you now add the onion, garlic and any remaining oil to your slow cooker. Then the passata.

Put down the lid and you cook it in the slow cooker, on low, for hours. At least six but 12 if you can. Then you take it out, cool it, use it all at once or store it in glass jars in the fridge (it keeps for a good few days) or freezer.

You can easily double/triple etc this recipe so you can make a batch up every few weeks and store it in the freezer so you are always good to go. And you will always have super-wonderful home made salsa for your pasta or pizza or whatever.

You can add herbs later but honestly, you just don’t need to. Yesterday I did as above, but cut up some sausages and stuck them in (lightly sauted first but you don’t need to) – you could also put meatballs in. I cooked it overnight for 12 hours and it was superb on pasta for lunch.

 

 

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Possibly the best phone ever for older people. Plus how to really crack down on spam/phishing callers.

I don’t really get spam/phishing calls. At least, not yet. This is possibly because I’ve never been in the phone directory, I have a landline that is, primarily there for my internet, and I am very tech savvy at blocking such calls on my mobile if I get them.

However, whenever I was round at my mum and dad’s their phone would regularly ring with phishing/spam calls. They would be annoying, and of course I registered them for the Telephone Preference Service but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Some of the calls were simply annoying “do you want double glazing” etc. Some so obviously scam calls as to be not a threat. But all meant my mum had to stop what she was doing and go and answer the phone.

The obvious thing is to to get an answerphone and screen calls. But here’s the thing. Getting a separate, mechanical answering machine that works with an existing phone and is not hugely expensive, is virtually impossible – I’ve tried. You can get integrated answering machines, with cordless phones, but this would mean a change of phone for my mum, which is okay, but the phones that come with integrated answer-machines tend to have small fiddly numbers; and my mum likes a corded phone so it can’t get lost/run out of charge.

BT’s Call Minder, which you access via your handset and is ‘remote’ is an option, but she didn’t like that as it’s too confusing for her. So an answer machine or an answering service wasn’t really an option. And anyway, a very sophisticated caller, such as she eventually came across, would have not been put off by such a device and they would have left a message, lending credibility to their call.

(Anyway I think even a fairly simple answering machine would have been frustrating for my mum to master and why make her feel crap about not being able to do something when she is so good at so many other things?)

Because, one day, my mum got a call of a very different kind. Very sophisticated, believable and distressing; I won’t go into the details here but, thankfully, at the last minute my mum pulled a blinder (you can take the girl out of Naples but…) and a very serious crisis was averted. (We reported it to Action Fraud.) But it got me thinking just how vulnerable some people are and I realised that something needed to be done. When I started telling people what had happened to my mum, the stories that came out were terrifying. I learned that someone I knew, with graduate parents (English their first language, quite unlike my mum), had been scammed of £5K.  Then another similar story, and so it went on.

My mum is not tech savvy. If you need to feed fifteen people with one stick of celery and a tomato, she’s your woman. Her vigour, energy, hospitality and inventiveness is gob-smacking, but she is a technophobe. So whatever I did had to be low-tech at her end and the tech burden had to be mine alone.  I also needed something I could monitor and tweak remotely. It was no use asking her to press button 1 to stop the last caller calling her again. She needed a phone, pretty much like her old phone, with buttons to press to dial someone.

This is what I did. It’s in two parts – the remote part and the actual phone.

First, BT launched something called BT Call Protect earlier this year. I knew about this but again though it would not work for my mum, but, with her permission I took over control of her account. It’s free, but you have to be a  BT customer (your phone service may offer something similar) and how it works is that, once activated, it has a pre-set list of known spam numbers, these are automatically blocked. But there’s more.

You can see who’s calling via the website or a phone app, and you can VIP these numbers – and name them so you recognise them again when you next log on – or block them. So now my mum only has to make a rough note of the time someone called if it was a bad call and I can, via my computer or the BT app, forever more block that number.

You can also set it so that it blocks all, eg. with-held or international calls. And of course if you fall out with someone, you can put them from the VIP list to the Blocked list. Imagine the power.

With VIP numbers you can control which times someone can call you, so that, eg, you don’t get disturbed at night, or so that they can ring you 24/7 – you decide. Useful if you have a relative who keeps different hours to you or you don’t want to be disturbed at night.

All of this I can do remotely for her and with her knowledge.

If you block a number, it goes to junk voicemail (which you access via pressing 1572 on the handset although, see below, I eventually got my mum Call Minder so I access this for her now) so there’s s safety net there in case it does turn out to be genuine (there was one casualty which was a long-lost friend from Rome, but, thanks to this I was able to get her message and let her know and what’s more, VIP her number for future calls).

Since I did this my mum’s spam calls have dropped to: zero. So far.

Then there’s the phone. It was long overdue that she be able to see who is ringing her. I also wanted her to be able to access important numbers really easily.

I’ve mentioned before that I got a mobile phone for my aunt from Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) so I turned to them for a phone for my mum and found this one.

It is really excellent and here’s why:

It has a caller display which lots of phones do (although they tend to be cordless) but with this one, you can tilt it up for maximum visibility and also change the contrast* – it displays the number and, if you’ve input the person into the phone’s phone book, their name will also show. (You need a subscription to a Caller Display service for this to work.)

*Someone visually impaired would still struggle to see this however, so look at the RNIB’s shop for phones for them.

The call buttons are large and illuminate when you pick up the phone.

There are four photo-buttons so you can either put people’s photos or write their name in LARGE TYPE. You programme these so that you can simply press them to dial someone but not only that: THEY ILLUMINATE WHEN THAT PERSON RINGS. Which is really like Thunderbirds!

I programmed as many numbers in as I could for my mum, no mean feat when you consider the size of our family. This you have to do with the phone in front of you but once done no further teccy-input necessary.

The phone plugs in and also needs 4 AAA batteries as back up. This it needs for the illumination/phone box storage features. It is otherwise a corded phone.

Although you can use the phone book to ring people – i.e. without having to manually press the number-keys, my mum doesn’t do this as she likes to use the number keys to ring people. There’s a volume control and also a boost in case someone is hard of hearing. So it’s packed with really useful features, but otherwise it’s a normal low-tech phone.

So now, as an added safe-guard, if my mum doesn’t recognise a number, she doesn’t have to pick it up. I’ve also put Call Minder on her line so that if she doesn’t pick up a call and it’s genuine, the people calling have the option of leaving her a message.  I control this remotely for her by ringing into it once a day (you have to set a PIN on the actual phone, but once you’ve done this you can ring in remotely). I can also hear if any spam callers who have called and left a message or not left a message.

There are other options available for protecting vulnerable relatives, such as True Call Blocker, which has rave reviews and Fuss Free Phones, which sound like a great idea but would have involved too many changes for my mum.

Some other option may work for you. This is so far what’s worked for us. I did a lot of research to come to these conclusions and what is the point of it if it doesn’t also benefit others?

 

The Week Junior

The Week – a comic sized, comic-looking journal which digests all that week’s news for you (strap line: ‘All you need to know about everything that matters’) – launched 20 years ago. I was a subscriber from the beginning. I LOVED it. Despite working in newspapers since 1993, you do sometimes miss stuff, and also, sometimes, you want a handy-sized journal to stuff in your bag.

The great thing about The Week is that you end up reading about things you thought you had no interest in. It’s brilliant for catching up about world news and, each week, takes a closer look at an important matter you may have suddenly realised you know too little about, but were too embarrassed to ask. The Week has no original news of its own, it takes its material from news reports that have come out that week. It has a great column called Wit And Wisdom (which I’ve been in three times, go me) where it picks up great quotes that have been made that week in the press or TV or radio.

I love The Week. I love that it has hardly changed its format in twenty years (it may in fact have never changed it and that’s great because its format works).

I was a columnist for The Week’s website version (which does generate its own news stories). And then I got made its sketch writer for a while,  a job I’d always wanted. I got that gig the day my youngest started school, so that rite-of-passage was painless because it was all about me me me that day.

Yesterday, The Week Junior launched. It doesn’t quite have the great feel to it of The Week original. It doesn’t obviously take its news from newspapers, as in it doesn’t say “The Daily Telegraph reported this week”. And I think that’s a pity because a bit of that sort of thing might encourage young children to read newspapers and also tell them about reputable places to get their news from. I think more children should read proper news.

It’s well laid out, interesting – both my children started reading it the moment I put it down. I worry about what it will do to First News which is a good children’s newspaper, although neither of my children particularly took to it (and they may not take to TWJ, either).

(I worry because I think it’d be a shame if the launch of one news publication for children pushed out another. There aren’t enough.)

Just going by the first issue, I think TWJ is better, but that may be because I love the original so much that I’m completely biased.

TWJ is aimed at 8-14 according to its press release. I would say that’s pushing at the upper age limit. My eldest is 12 and she reads The Week (original) and whilst she enjoyed TWJ, I’m not sure she will still be interested in it when she’s 14. My youngest, who is six, could read it easily (I’m not saying this in a ‘my child is a genius kind of way, just saying she was interested in it). So I would say the age group is more like 6/7 – 13. But I could be wrong, and what does it matter anyway.

The Week Junior is currently available exclusively from Sainsburys (i’m sure it will roll out in other places soon). Cover price: £1.99. Do have a look at it to see if you think it’s right for your family. Currently The Week subscribers can add it to their subs for an extra £50 a year.

[Disclaimer: I got sent the first issue for free, but if I subscribe I will do so using my own money.]

February 2016: We’ve been taking this for a couple of months now and we think it’s really excellent.

How to deal with nosebleeds and how to get rid of blood stains

I know. Birruva shock for a Sunday morning, and not a post involving the beating together of diabetes and cardiac arrest inducing amounts of sugar and butter.

Sorry.

But I have a cold. A really bad one and the incessant blowing of my nose has made my nose bleed lots.

I’ve had nose bleeds since I was about seven. I remember my first one because it was traumatic. Let me tell you about it.

Crossroads had just started. Crossroads was a very bad soap opera based in a motel. Television could be brilliant or very poor back in those days. As the opening titles finished and Benny with his woolly hat came on, like a runaway from the children’s programme Rainbow, my  nose started bleeding. And bleeding. And bleeding.

My mum rang the GP who gave us the totally wrong advice to put  my head back and pinch my nose. All this did was make the blood run down my throat into my stomach. Half an hour later I still had a nose bleed but then also puked up a stomach full of blood. Which alarmed everyone. I could hear Crossroads finishing.

Still my nose bled. Eventually of course it stopped. But I learned something useful.

You don’t stop a nosebleed by putting your head back. This is how they always show it on TV. That’s about as helpful as showing women labouring on their back. I think it’s about camera angles.

If you have a nosebleed and you have no other health problems, like suffering from haemophilia then the way to stop it is to lean forward. Pinch the affected nostril hard. Not at the top of your nose, the fleshy part so you close that nostril. Wait for about three minutes, by which time your natural blood clotting soldiers will have come in and fought the battle.

What you may then find is a big clot coming out of your  nose. Don’t panic. This is normal. At least, it’s normal for me and those whose nose bleeds I’ve observed.

I’m so adept at dealing with nosebleeds now I mostly get on and do other things when I have them. Unless I get a simultaneous nose bleed in both nostrils, like I did when I was pregnant and when I have colds. That’s not so fun, but the same principles apply. I’m so confident now that when my nosebleed has stopped, I gently blow it to get the clot out and carry on with my day.

Eeuww. But look this might be useful one day.

Now then: blood stains. Obviously you can’t deal with huge ones this way, well not without spending all day spitting. But this morning I got a bit of blood on my sheets as I was trying to stem the nose bleed from both nostrils. Damn I thought, I’ve only just changed the bed. Then I remembered a trick I picked up from when I used to write the Dear Annie columns.

Your saliva, apparently, has enzymes to dissolve your own blood. Or something like that. So I spat – or to put it another way, transferred saliva – onto the stain and the blood disappeared like magic. Really it’s incredible (the fresher the stain the more effective the saliva is). It only works on your own blood though, so if you’ve killed someone, you can’t get rid of evidence this way.

Anyone fancy a sleepover?

Ice grippers for your shoes

The walk to school.

I have, once before in this blog, lamented the loss of the apres ski boots I bought when I was 14. They were by a Canadian make called Blondi (or something like that) that were the most amazing boots for the snow and the ice that I’d ever come across.

They had what seemed like a sticky rubber sole and for years I thought I had imagined this.

But I hadn’t.

There is indeed something called ‘sticky rubber’ which is used on snow boots.

Anyway, the boots are now long dead although they lasted about 20 years. But I contemplated buying a replacement until I saw that really good apres ski boots cost about £150 and for only occasional use, that seemed a bit luxurious when I had my Ecco boots and my sheepskin boots.

But my research led me to ice grips that you slip onto your boots or shoes. They are really good to keep in a bag when the weather gets like this. They slip relatively easily onto footwear, are good quality and are nice and grippy on ice. But, on normal pavements they can make you feel very unstable so if you’re walking on and off icy surfaces do be aware of this and decide whether you want to have them on or off.

I got mine in December (because I am ORGANISED) and they cost £3.19, now they’ve gone up a bit according to what size you want. Still cheap though and useful to have.

I am a size 37/4.5 and the medium fitted me perfectly.

 

A cake to cheer you up and natural firelighters

A really rather superior cake.

I’ve been pretty flat thus far this month. In part because there is loads of bad news around, it’s end of year accounts time, tax is due, it’s not Christmas, all those things you put off until after Christmas can no longer be ignored, everyone is miserable, George Osborne is still chancellor and also because January just generally is the arse-end month of the calendar. The only good point in it is my mother’s birthday.

We usually book a little weekend away in Jan or Feb to cheer ourselves up. But not this year.

Anyway. Two things that cheer me up are real fires and cake and the two are connected today by: oranges.

Orange peel, left to dry a bit, makes excellent firelighters. I doubt they’d be an alternative to shop-bought, kerosene soaked firelighters, but they are a good addendum to them and also smell nice. I had two oranges that I’d studded with cloves for Christmas, you know the sort of thing. And they’d started to go off and dry up and I put them on a really roaring fire and the smell was amazing. As was the glow of the cloves..nut shells also burn well (because of the oils, same reason orange peel does). So save up all your pistachio shells to put on the fire.

Jesus, could that sentence sound more middle class.

Cake. I saw this recipe in the Waitrose magazine this month and earmarked it for the weekend (I don’t eat cake during the week). I made it last weekend and it’s a really excellent cake. The sponge is heavy with ground almonds which gives it a dense crumb but an amazing taste. I loathe icing sugar heavy icings – those that are nothing more than icing sugar and water or butter (why why why would anyone eat such things?) and have a glycaemic index of 112, and this is at least a bit better for you as it uses mostly Greek yoghurt and mascarpone.

I would link to the goddam recipe but Waitrose magazine hasn’t put it online yet the bastards.

for the cake

125g unsalted butter, softened
200g caster sugar
3 large eggs
100ml single cream
250g ground almonds
125g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
half a teaspoon of salt
zest of one orange
3 tablespoons of seville orange marmalade

for the syrup

the juice of one orange
1 tablespoon of seville orange marmalade

for the frosting

150g mascarpone
125g Greek yoghurt
4 tablespoons of icing sugar
2 tablespoons of seville orange marmalade
the zest and juice of half an orange

You need two 20cm cake tins lined in baking parchment.
Oven to 180C.

Using an electric mixer (I used the whisk attachments) beat the butter and  sugar for five long, boring minutes until it’s light and fluffy or at least, til 5 mins have passed.

Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then the cream, then the almonds. Once mixed together, I took it off the whisk and did the rest by hand: folded in the flour, baking powder and salt, then the orange zest and marmalade.

Divide between the tins and bake for 20-25 mins until a skewer comes out clean. You know the drill.

The recipe says to wait til the cakes are cooled to pour on the syrup. I didn’t really. I left them for a bit then made the syrup and poured on whilst the cakes weren’t cool. Be warned however: keep the cakes in the tins whilst you pour the syrup on as there’s a lot of syrup and you want to contain everything.

So, to make the syrup you combine the two ingredients and warm gently in a saucepan  until the marmalade has dissolved, then prick the two cakes and pour over evenly.

Now leave the cakes until they are completely cooled. Disrobe them from their parchment and now make the icing which you do thus:

Beat all the frosting ingredients together, reserving a sprinkle of orange zest which you’ll use for decoration. Sandwich the cakes together with it, then put some icing on the top. Sprinkle with the zest.

Delicious.

Although I haven’t tried it, I think this cake might respond well to being made with rice flour.