Sunday 30 August 2009

a country mouse cooks chicken stew

Tonight's tea was a Sophie Dahl recipe called Chicken Stew with Green Olives, with a Fay Ripley recipe, Chinese Roast Broccoli, served with redcurrant jelly that Little R and I made earlier in the summer after picking basketsfull at the local fruit farm. There were a lot of strong flavours and DH and I thought it was a success. Little R was less keen but that could have been due to the glace cherries she scoffed (illicitly) beforehand. I have made the chicken stew a few times now and am a big fan of Sophie Dahl's cookery book (Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights). The recipes use ingredients that I like and it is very easy to find something delicious to cook. Another thing I like about the book is that it has a core of ingredients which she uses in different ways, so once you have bought the more unusual ingredients you are all set to make lots of things with just the addition of the fresh stuff. Definitely a high scorer in helping country mouse achieve an organised life.

One thing I have found to be really important in making dishes which require tins of tomatoes is to use a really good make. The best I have found so far, and I've been consciously looking, is Sainsbury's Taste the Difference San Marzano tinned tomatoes. They are 75p a tin but so are the Tesco organic tinned tomatoes and the San Marzano ones are noticeably nicer. I also add some sugar even if it doesn't say it in the recipe as that seems to take away any bitterness. If only that worked in life.

This recipe uses fennel instead of onions in the tomato sauce, which makes it very summery and fresh tasting, and just before you serve it you stir in green olives (got to be really good quality, either fresh or in oil, not the nasty ones in brine) and big handfuls of fresh basil. I served it with crusty bread tonight and that was the only bit Little R ate. I am not doing too well in my quest to find dinners we can all eat. She keeps asking for bangers and mash.

The Fay Ripley broccoli recipe was very easy and effective. You put the broccoli florets on a baking tray and scatter with ground-up coriander seeds then drizzle liberally with olive oil. You then bake it in a hot oven for 20 mins so you get black bits on it. Really yummy.

The only thing I changed about the Sophie Dahl recipe was that I did not pour in a glass of white wine before adding the tomatoes. I just CANNOT bear to pour a glass of wine into a pot.

a country mouse in a country park

This afternoon we went to a nearby country park. The park is the gardens and grounds of a large Scots baronial house so there are lots of odd little things to see, such as rickety hothouses (below) and old trees with huge trunks and twisted roots. The root in the photo above looked like a dragon's claw emerging from under the ground. The berries in the photo below looked like they were cuddling up to the hothouse glazing for a bit of warmth and tapping on the door - "let us in!"

The entrance to the walled garden. Shades of Frances Hodgson Burnett. I was looking out for Colin Craven rising from his wheelchair. Sadly there was no robin perched on the wall to show us where the key was buried, and no Dickon surrounded by his creatures. A magical book and one which I look forward to reading to Little R when she's big enough.
One of the last agapanthuses (agapanthi?), braving the wind and rain.
As well as the original hothouses (below) there is lots of Victorian wrought and cast ironwork, walls made of handmade bricks with old apple trees espaliered against them and some beautiful stone carving too. It's all very atmospheric.
The stone bench with wonky steps up to it (below) has been assembled recently from dressed stone pediments and lintels salvaged from some earlier structure. It sits on the edge of what was once an ornamental pond but which has now been turned into a maze (overgrown and very muddy) made of cobbles laid in the pattern of a celtic knot. There are a lot of water weeds and water loving plants around this area. Perhaps the pond was created in the first place because of a high water table in this spot. Little R thought that Tyrannosaurus Drip would love it.
A sweet little bird table, below. It kind of looks like it's been put together from various odds and sods of stone rather than purposely carved.

The rear view of the house (below). Note the solar panels on the roof of Rapunzel's tower. A few years ago, DH and I watched a production of Much Ado About Nothing in the garden of this house and were almost eaten alive by midges. I can hardly look at the place without flinching, even now. There were a lot of midges there today too but we had come prepared with some kick-ass anti-midge potion plus antihistamine cream (I'm allergic).

And back home, I came across a garden gnome painted by Little R with Daddy yesterday. He looks very pagan amongst the flowers. I love the autumnal shades of his hat, his jaunty yellow nose and the jolly red wellies. His name is Gnomie.

Saturday 29 August 2009

a country mouse parties

Country mouse went to a kitchenware party last night (joint Pampered Chef and Jamie Oliver) and spent £45 on stuff she doesn't need and which won't help her cook better or have a more organised life. Sauvignon Blanc is heady stuff for a mouse.

Above: the Pampered Chef goodies. Below: the Jamie Oliver goodies. All displayed in country mouse's sister's immaculately clean and tidy house. How does she do it. Note country mouse's nephew's artwork on the walls. The painting with the fish and the big black blob shows "Nemo and his Dad and the underneath of the boat." Yes, he has painted the boat from the viewpoint of the fish.

At last we have a new playpark. The villagers got together and raised money for it through a combination of lottery funding, money from the council and things like garden parties and face painting. We had to do this because the old playpark was removed and replaced by a car park when a beautiful old church in the village was being turned into flats. The church was really special. Like the rest of the village, it was built by a Victorian Christian philanthropist for the orphans who lived here in those days. Every column inside it was carved with different motifs, like fruit and leaves, and every pew had different, child-sized carvings on it. The stained glass was stunning and again was specially for the little orphans, with images of happy bible stories that they could understand and enjoy looking at. It was utterly tragic to see it all removed and being replaced with yet more "luxury apartments."

Country mouse was at the playpark yesterday in the pouring rain, getting a sign installed to thank the sponsors in time for the official opening ceremony today. We're also getting a cycle track marked out in white paint on the adjoining patch of old tarmac. Little R loved jumping up and down in the puddles more than she loved the swings. Perhaps we could have made some financial savings on play equipment.

Friday 28 August 2009

a country mouse knits a doll

I bought these 4 little books from the charity shop the other day and they have all been a big hit with Little R. Another big hit with Little R has been her knitted dolly, Mathilda. She asked me out of the blue one day if I would knit a doll for her and helped me choose a book on Amazon with a pattern she liked. The book is Toys To Knit by Tracy Chapman. I knitted the doll for her 4th birthday and I am so pleased and touched that she loves it so much. She plays with it every day and takes it out in the car with her, gives it rides on the back of her bike and tucks it up in a cradle at night. I love that she plays with it but then again, part of me wants to have it sitting up on a very high shelf, away from dirt and any form of danger to her structural integrity. I also knitted a ballet skirt and crocheted some ballet shoes for Mathilda but these were torn off and consigned to the bottom of the toy box. Mathilda will only wear her net tutu for photocalls and conducts daily life wearing merely her wrap cardigan and a pair of pink knickers. Way to go, Mathilda.

a country mouse in the garden

Hanging out Little R's clothes always reminds me of doing a dolly's washing when I was a wee girl. Unfortunately it all got soaked yesterday. It has rained here every single day this August and although I keep hanging out the washing in a spirit of optimism I am becoming a bit crushed by this.

Speaking of crushed, I found most of the lillies bashed down by last night's wind and rain. I cut the survivors this morning and brought them indoors. It's just as cold in this house as it is outdoors so I think they will be fine. They will probably become cryogenically preserved.

Still, there are lots of plums on the plum tree and the beans are doing well in the rain.
The plum tree is an espalier and needs regular attention, which it doesn't get, to keep its shape. I have netted the bottom half and the birds are welcome to have the high up plums. I apply the same philosophy to the raspberries so we have had some happy and well-fed birds this summer. I should have planted the beans properly in rows but there still seems to be a fairly good crop developing. It shows how effective slapdash gardening can be, so no need for country mouse to change her ways.

Thursday 27 August 2009

a country mouse bakes lemon fairy cakes

Now that Little R is 4 it is so much easier for me to get a run at making things and with all this rainy weather, cooking and baking in the warm kitchen with Radio 4 in the background is becoming quite addictive. This is the second time I have made these fairy cakes and I plan to make them again tomorrow to take along to my sister's house as she is hosting a joint Pampered Chef/Jamie Oliver cookware party (she is an inveterate multi-tasker) and is expecting a crowd.
The recipe is from this month's Country Homes and Interiors, which I bought by mistake thinking it was Country Living. That will teach me to pay attention as at £3 plus each I can't now justify buying Country Living this month. Oh it's hard being a country mouse.
The recipe is very easy if you have an electric beater. You put 150g of softened lightly salted butter (I used unsalted), 150g caster sugar, 175g self raising flour, 3 medium eggs, 1 tsp vanilla extract and the zest of an unwaxed lemon into a bowl and beat it all up until smooth. Then spoon into paper cases and bake at 180deg (fan) for 20 mins. I found less than 15 minutes was enough. I misread the recipe and added 3 tbsps of lemon juice to the batter when it was meant to go into the icing sugar for the icing at the end but the cakes were really nice with it so I will keep it that way for the future. The lemon icing is 150g icing sugar plus enough lemon juice to make the right consistency. I found that was too much icing as the recipe only made 12 cakes but perhaps I should have spun out the mixture to make 16 cakes as they rose high in the oven and now look like mini iced volcanoes.
I see the photos are in the wrong order again. Next time I will upload in reverse order and hope that works.
The first photo (which obviously should be the last one in the sequence) shows the best bit of the afternoon's activities and my current obsession - hot soapy water with fairy liquid and lots of cloths, sponges and dishwashing brushes. I have stacks of folded knitted cloths. The next exciting instalment of a country mouse writes may even reveal them to the public gaze....

a country mouse cooks sausages

Continuing my quest to find wholesome dinners that the family will actually eat and that I can cook, I made Made-Up Tuscan Sausage Stew from Fay's Family Food (p.64). I was a fish-eating veggie for nearly twenty years but in recent years I have been eating high-welfare/organic meat on occasion. I feel that cooking for the family would be a lot easier if I just gave in and ate more of it but I am struggling. I keep seeing little animal faces - baaaaaad. Making this sausage stew is an experiment for me in meat-eating as it is made with pork sausages, not my usual Quorn. They are called Debbie and Andrew's sausages and the packet makes a big deal about how well treated the piggies are and how the sausages are made from lean pork shoulder and nothing else, so I am assuming that means no piggy eyelids will be discovered on the plate. We will see at tea time how it goes - it's in the oven cooking as I write.
I modified the recipe slightly in that I put in a bouquet garni instead of a bay leaf and oregano, and I cut up the pepper, onion, carrot and celery very small so that it would go un-noticed. I also added a leek. And, as before, I cooked it all in the big silver frying pan then transferred it at great personal risk to the rectangular casserole dish and covered that with foil as I am not a well-paid actress who writes cookery books (regrettably).
Mmmm, just ate it. Delicioso, as Dora the Explorer would say. I ate the beans and sauce and left the sausages. They were delicioso too but in the end just too porky for a veggie coming slowly down from her high horse. Little R has not touched hers but perhaps today was not a good day to make it as we were at a friend's house today and that friend is a great baker and Little R paid tribute to her skills by scoffing several muffins and gingerbread men. Still, there is plenty left and she will be getting another chance at it tomorrow. The recipe says to add pesto at the end I would say that really makes the dish. I think DH will like it.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

a country mouse crochets

Came across a fantastic book, The Happy Hooker, by Debbie Holler, which has some really unusual crochet patterns. I am a beginner crocheter and am already crocheting my second Garden Scarf (p.96). They are for 2 funky girls, my sister in law and my sister. I like Debbie Holler's approach: instead of teaching each crochet stitch individually she gets you hooked (see what I did there) on a particular pattern then you learn the required stitches as you go along. Through this I have learned single, double, half double and treble crochet. The book also tells you how to block your work and it worked a miracle on my first scarf, which went from a crumpled pile of raggy flowers into something wearable. I'll do a before and after picture when it comes time to block this scarf and you will see the transformation for yourself. I love the process as I have big thing for soap suds and warm water at the moment and it involves soaking, twisting and pummelling your work in soapy water before rinsing and stretching to shape on a drying rack. Very satisfying.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

a country mouse shops

One of the many little things I appreciate about being an at-home mum is the chance to make frequent visits to the wonderful local charity shop. I can't believe what people give away. I have found some beautiful handmade things in the past which have obviously been made with a lot of love and it is so sad to think they have ended up in a cardboard box with a 50p price tag. So that's my excuse for snapping them up and bringing them home to be loved again.

Had great luck today when I was hunting for things with pretty fabric for cutting up at a later date when I learn to use a sewing machine (a current ambition). In the 50p baby-clothes box I found some sweet red gingham (actually Little White Company pyjama trousers - I know, the shop is incredible), a wee top with a strawberry pattern and also some well-worn wooden knitting needles. The plum tree in the garden is laden this year so perhaps I could use the gingham to decorate the forthcoming jars of plum jam and chutney. The strawberry material turned out to be Baby Gap and so I can't quite bring myself to cut it up. It may end up as a dress for Emma, Little R's favourite dolly, and I may reference its origins by splashing out on a red gingham ribbon for the waist to keep it on.

a country mouse cooks dinner

I bought yet another new cookbook the other day: Fay's Family Food
by Fay Ripley, who used to be in Cold Feet. I justified it to myself because it was reduced to £5 and really after all it's an INVESTMENT in my search for an organised life.

Last night I made Creamy Boursin Salmon Penne (P.183) from the "Don't Panic" section. I ate it and loved it, DH ate it but didn't love it and Little R didn't eat it at all. "Yuck," was her verdict. It involved mixing Greek yoghurt, tomato puree and garlicky soft cheese into a sauce and pouring that over pasta with steamed, flaked salmon and steamed broccoli. My verdict was "Yum" so we'll be having that again and Little R can have a banana.

Tonight I made One Pot Lemon Chicken With Thyme Rice (P.90). I was very attracted by the one-pot notion - Fay advises that you "use your favourite casserole dish"- until I realised that Fay is using one of those fabulous and scarily expensive casserole dishes that can be used on the hob then transferred to the oven and which also look very Jamie Oliverish on your table afterwards. I don't have such a thing. So I cooked it all in my huge silver frying pan then nearly put myself in A&E pouring it into a le Creuset rectangular casserole dish (splash splash OWWW) and covering it with tinfoil. Worked out fine. No need for vast expenditure to be made on kitchenware on, although I did enjoy contemplating that. I loved it, DH ate it without comment and Little R said yuck and ate a banana.