Wednesday 16 December 2009

a country mouse gets glittery

It's not your eyes, it's my photography. I borrowed a smart new camera from a friend to see if my antiquated model was at fault but no, it is definitely me. Perhaps I should claim I meant it to be in soft focus. It is LOVE after all, and a little soft focus is often a good thing in that department.
A great deal of mess was created while making this little decoration. The cones were gathered on a winter walk on a dry day last week and left in a box to let any sheltering beasties escape. Little R had a fine old time painting on the PVA glue and covering them, me, herself and the kitchen in glitter this afternoon while I studded the oranges with cloves, stopping every so often to mop up the combat zone. You can see our new tablecloth in this photo: christmas robins, from John Lewis. It was a present from Grandado and Little Granny and makes the room feel very festive. Fortunately, it is wipe-clean vinyl.
I wanted to include this picture, below, as a reminder to myself that the best things in life are sometimes free, or at least quite cheap. I was picking rosemary in the garden this afternoon to make spinach, lentil and rosemary soup from one of my oldest and most favourite cookbooks when I realised how wonderful it smelled, even in the depths of winter, so I picked a big bunch and filled a jug for the windowsill. The tea lights are in flowery glass holders from Ikea which cost 39p each. And the cherries are a wee treat for Little R, who loves them but was refused them the other day in M&S when I realised that they were £3 a punnet. I bought a handful loose today in the local greengrocer's for pennies.
The spinach, lentil and rosemary soup is a recipe I have made many, many times and is from one of my favourite vegetarian cookbooks, Glasgow Greens, by Kathryn Hamilton. My lame photography does not do it justice but it is a wonderful deep green colour and looks extra vibrant when you add some natural yoghurt and a slice of lemon on top. And I see my red Ikea tray making an appearance here for the third time. What a loss I am to the world of food styling.
This soup is great if you're feeling a bit run down as it is so full of nutrition. It's easy to make and you can feel extra smug if you have grown most of the ingredients in your garden, as I have done in the past and plan to get my BTM into gear to do again. You start by softening 2 cloves of garlic and one finely chopped onion in olive oil until translucent, then add 115g red lentils and about 1 tbsp chopped rosemary and stir till coated. Add spinach in handfuls till wilted. The recipe says 450g of spinach but I have found it comes in 200g bags (when not home grown) so that's 2 big bags. Then add about a litre of vegetable stock, cover and simmer for 15-20 mins. Blend, season, and serve. The lemon really adds something and it can be nice to squeeze in some lemon juice as well.
We have some mummy friends and their children coming over to play tomorrow afternoon so I had another go at the River Cottage pear cake, this time making sure to caramelise the pears properly. It looks a lot better than my first attempt. I just hope there's no glitter in it.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

a country mouse makes gingerbread men

At last I have finished the garland of gingerbread men I embarked on two weeks ago. I'm really happy with them, despite the various lumps and bumps and the fact that they do not bear close examination from behind, but then who does. They were easy to make and although it did get a little old by gingerbread man number 3, I thought of Delia and her wise words when making christmas pudding crackers out of filo pastry, "Yes, it is fiddly. But look, it's done now." The cute little robin decoration beside them was a present from a good friend who knows my weakness for robins. We went to two Christmas fairs at the weekend and Little R visited two of Santa's Helper Santas (bit of quick thinking required there). I found a really great bag on one of the craft stalls. The lady who made it makes all kinds of things out of vintage interior designers' fabric. I had never heard of her work but I think I'll be buying more. If you like the look of it, her website is My bag was only £5 and it is really special in its provenance and is very well made. You can also see Little R's new bag and sweetie watch in the photo. Her bag is so cute. It has a furry ponyskin patterned fleece on the back and was only £1 in the good old charity shop. She carries her wee purse in it and these days there is considerably more money in her purse than there is in mine.
Today we had another of those cosy kitchen afternoons that I love so much. This time we made soda bread with spelt flour from a recipe on the Cottage Smallholder blog at It's real, proper soda bread with a good hard crust. It's delicious and I'll definitely be making it again. My usual recipe uses natural yoghurt but this one used buttermilk and cream of tartar.
Even Little R ate it. Next time I will put less salt in though, so that I can feel happier about her eating it. These days all she will eat for dinner is plain pasta with parmesan. I put corn or peas or sprouts in as well and she'll usually eat that without comment, and she does eat lots of fruit, but there is very little protein going in other than the odd egg for breakfast. She's even saying yuck to the homemade chicken nuggets. I think it may be a reaction to all the cooking I've been doing over the last few months. She did one day say to me, very firmly, "No more recipes for dinners, please." Perhaps this is the direct action approach now, the talks having failed.
Below is Little R's play dough version of the soda bread. Play dough is such great stuff and it's very easy to make. We got this recipe at her playgroup. Each week a different mum would be responsible for making and bringing the playdough and on more than one occasion a forgetful mum (me) had to run round to the shops for the ingredients and whip up a quick batch in the playgroup kitchen. You need 2 cups of plain flour, 1 cup of salt (to stop the little savages eating it), 2 cups of water, 2 tablespoons of oil, 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar and some food colouring. Boil it all together, stirring all the time, until it makes a ball. It takes about 2 minutes of stirring at the most. Store in clingfilm in the fridge. Other than the perennial favourite, the cardboard box, it has to be one of the cheapest and most fun toys there can be. We're all about the value for money here at Country Mouse Towers.
I'll leave you with a happy thought: Kirstie's Homemade Christmas, Wednesdays, 8pm, Ch4.

Thursday 3 December 2009

a country mouse gets lucky

Country mouse got oh so lucky in the charity shop the other day. I could hardly squeak for excitement.
I spotted this little house on a high shelf as soon as I walked in. It's a tissue box cover - see the chimney? Every home should have a hand stitched tissue box cover made out of plastic aida. Then I spotted the cushion cover (behind it in the photo above). There were 5 of these cushion covers, all hand made, plus a set of lined curtains, also hand made, all for £4.50. The house was £3, so coming close to breaking the budget, but I just had to have them. With my heart rate climbing and my arms full of swag, I noticed one of my favourite things - an old fashioned craft book (below).
There really are no words to describe the contents so here is a photo of the crocheted swimming costumes to give you the general idea. The little boy's face says it all.
Home for some minestrone soup. As you know, I'm a recovering vegetarian and a fussy one at that, so am only ok with eating certain kinds of meat - organic, high welfare, expensive. My local butcher has some delicious bacon that fits all these criteria and as I had a savoy cabbage from the farmers' market looking at me reproachfully every time I opened the fridge door, minestrone was the answer. It was very quick to make, once the chopping was done. I find it quite soothing to chop vegetables anyway, especially if there's something decent on radio 4 and Little R is happily drawing at the table. I'd like to freeze frame happy afternoons like that. I suppose that's what I'm doing with this blog. It's so nice to look back at previous posts and read about the little events of our lives that I'd probably have forgotten otherwise, or which would at least have melded into a general memory of "cooking" or "walks."
But back to the soup. You heat 2 tbsps of olive oil and add a finely chopped onion, carrot and celery stick. Soften for 8-10 mins, then add 70g pancetta (I used the bacon), 1 clove crushed garlic and 2 tbsps chopped thyme and fry for 2-3 mins. Then pour in 1 litre hot chicken stock, 1 400g tin chopped tomatoes and half of a 400g tin of borlotti beans. Mash the remaining beans, stir into the soup then simmer for 30 mins. Add 125g minestrone pasta (macaroni in my case) and 175g shredded savoy cabbage 10 mins before the end of the cooking time. Add a spoonful of ready made pesto to serve.
This recipe is from a booklet I got inside a Good Housekeeping magazine a few months ago, called 50 Suppers For Under £5. It's really good and I can see myself making a lot from it. The very next night I used the leftover bacon and cabbage to make spicy bacon pasta sauce from the next page in the booklet and it worked out really well too, even though I poured the recommended glass of dry white wine into me rather than into the pot (naturally).
Finally, with a four year old in the house, Christmas starts on the 1st of December. This is her own little tree with a fairy on the top. We'll get the proper tree in a couple of weeks. There is a big country estate not far from here where you can go into the woods and choose your own tree, put a tag on it, then come back for it when you're ready. They give you a hacksaw and you have to cut down the tree then drag it back through the woods to be put through the shrink-wrapping machine (that green net stuff) before trying to fit it into the car without too much injury to self and family. They have carol singers in the courtyard and a craft market in the stables and also a Santa to visit, although as I write this I remember getting a nasty shock last year when we took Little R to meet their Santa and found that he was about 25 years old.