Saturday, 27 February 2016

Cutting food bills during February - week 3 update

Making a packed lunch from what's left in the cupboards

Our third week of trying to spend less while eating more healthily during February included the joys of half term.

We didn't go away for a holiday, but took the chance to go on assorted outings, visit places we don't normally visit and catch up with family and friends.

On the food front, this mainly involved a whole succession of picnics.

February's weather is not really conducive to a pastoral idyll involving picnic blankets and dappled sunshine.

Instead, we avoided frostbite by scoffing sandwiches in the car park outside the cinema, wraps on the bus on the way to the cinema, puff pastry tart sitting in the car at Audley End and bagels in the picnic room at the Museum of Childhood. Turns out frugal family togetherness involves doling out multipack crisps and peeling satsumas from the front seat of a car.

I also managed to work our way through almost all the meals I'd planned for this week, as posted here.The only two we haven't got round to yet are the frankfurters and mash, and the chicken curry, although I went for a veggie alternative instead, with my first attempts at dahl and bombay potatoes.


One of the side effects of half term was that I didn't spend long in supermarkets. I couldn't nip into the Co-op as part of the school run, and my children are not entirely convinced that a "trip to the supermarket" counts as a half term highlight.

Main haul from Morrisons, for £18.02

Instead I did one larger shop at Morrisons when the car was handy (£18.02).

Sainsbury's top up shopping, £10.64

I also gave my husband a shopping list when he stopped at Sainsbury's for petrol (£10.64), and made a couple of lightning raids when we finished essentials like porridge oats and milk (£1.75 for oats on offer, £2.67 for milk and reduced hot cross buns and £3.31 for sardines and cut price bread and sausages). 

Milk and reduced hot cross buns, £2.67

Sardines for my son, with cut price chipolatas and a loaf , £3.31

When I took the children on a day trip to London, I took a trusty picnic to keep costs low, but forgot to bring a bottle of water (kerching, £1.20 for a replacement at the station). I also bought a packet of chocolate chip cookies to ensure peace on the bus (a bargain at £1).

In the end, our total food shopping this week came to £38.59.


After looking through our cupboards, fridge and freezer, here's the summary of what we've bought and what's left so far during February.

Week 1 food shopping summary
Food bought: £68.55

Food left on 22 Feb: £6.85

Week 2 food shopping summary
Food bought: £28.37

Food left on 22 Feb: £1.26

Week 3 food shopping summary
Food bought: £38.59

Food left on 22 Feb: £14.23

Running total after 3 weeks
Food bought: £135.51

Food left on 22 Feb: £22.34

So after three weeks, our food spending for a family of four averages out just over £45 a week. 

Of that, we've actually eaten around £38 worth a week in addition to the food we already had in the house. 


Here's the progress on the abandoned ingredients I was keen to use up. This week I finally used some of the lingering rice and the tin of potatoes, as highlighted in red.

Industrial quantities of egg-fried rice, using leftover roast beef

1. couple of massive turkey drumsticks, frozen since Christmas Made turkey and mushrooms in a creamy mustard sauce, as blogged here

2. few left over brussel sprouts Used in slightly strange bacon, brussel sprout and broad bean spaghetti and parsnips, also lingering since Christmas Went into winter veg soup 

3. part of a jar of mincemeat (are you beginning to sense a Christmas theme?)

4. a panettone (yup, still on Christmas) Made bread and butter pudding for the visitors one weekend

5. the remains of the Quorn mountain Used the bag of Quorn chicken fillets in puff pastry pie and Quorn chicken salad, still need to use up some Quorn chicken pieces and a couple of Quorn sausages.

6. couple of tubs of chicken stock stashed at the back of the freezer Waiting for risotto inspiration

7. basmati rice bought from Morrisons, which just doesn't cook the same as the Sainsbury's version  Used up quite a lot to eat with dahl and as egg fried rice. It was fine when I religiously followed the instructions to rinse in cold water before cookin and rinse with boiling water after cooking. I also cut the cooking time to 10 minutes rather than the 11 to 13 minutes on the packet

8. an abandoned cut price celeriac, bought with the best of intentions Used as smashed celeriac to accompany roasted red peppers with feta and cherry tomatoes, as blogged here.

9. a tin of potatoes from nearly a year ago  Fried up as bombay potatoes to go with dahl, rice and a cucumber and tomato raita

10. untouched bag of yellow split peas, bought to make dahl and soup. I did make some dahl, but ended up using red lentils rather than yellow split peas - #cupboardclearingfail

Using up rice and tinned potatoes as veggie meal with
dahl, bombay potatoes and cucumber & tomato raita

So now I've been looking up recipes so I can use some of the mincemeat, yellow split peas, Quorn and chicken stock - although potentially not all in the same meal...


If I thought the kitchen looked sparse half way through February, it all seems even emptier now.

I'm determined to use up both some of stash in the storecupboards, and food already bought this month.

Meal planning from the contents of my cupboards at the start of the third week (post here) definitely helped make the most of the food we already had, so I've jotted down some ideas to finish February.

Main meal ideas

- Sausage casserole with mashed potato and broccoli
- Chicken & pea risotto, to use leftover chicken from the roast
- Chicken & mushroom creamy pasta, to finish the leftover chicken
- Friday night pizzas, with the other half of the pizza dough made last Friday
- Roasted veg tart tatin, using up the last of the puff pastry hiding at the back of the freezer
- Stir fry with cashews or pistachios and noodles, raiding the top shelves of my kitchen cupboards.

I do also have some long-frozen chicken pieces and Quorn chicken in the freezer, which could be converted into some kind of curry or stew.

Lunch ideas

I've got assorted leftovers that could do for lunch, whether the remains of the dahl with rice, the solitary remaining carrot, cumin and kidney bean burger in a brown roll, a couple of portions of winter veg soup, and the final couple of Quorn sausages.
Most of the main meals should yield some leftovers that my husband can take into work the next day as his packed lunches.

There's nothing like running down the contents of your kitchen to make you look forward to buying more fresh food!

Any top tips on clearing kitchen cupboards and cutting food bills?

Friday, 19 February 2016

Is Degustabox good value?

The excitement of a big bargain parcel of food

I like trying new food, love a bargain and adore getting parcels in the post, so a discount offer on Degustabox seemed an ideal combination.

Degustabox sends out a box of 9 to 14 surprise food & drink goodies, many of which are meant to be new to the market, once a month.

Normally it costs £12.99 a month including delivery, and Degustabox says that the contents should be worth more than the price you pay.

So when a £4.99 offer for a trial box popped on Facebook, I finally gave it a whirl.

It was great getting a big fat surprise parcel, and even the inflatable wrapping caused great excitement. We're easily pleased in this house.

Who needs a hat when you can use plastic packaging?

Anyway the contents was mostly an enormous quantity of snack food, including soft drinks and snacks and rice crackers, plus a couple of convenience foods with some gluten-free muffin mix and a pot of Japanese noodles. There was a nod to healthy snacks with some freeze dried fruit, a fancy nut mix and some carob-covered seed bars, but they're still snacks.

The tin of tomatoes, bottle of passata and voucher for butter were the only things vaguely approaching the kind of raw ingredients I'd buy regularly.

I happily took lots of photos, and it was fun trying out new brands, and gorging on crisps, nuts and noodles.

But I realised the bigger question for me, rather than reviewing the individual items, was whether or not Degustabox represents good value to our family.

One of their main selling points is that the value of the products sent is worth more than the amount you pay, so the box includes a list of what the contents would cost elsewhere.

Content list in the box

Our particular parcel contained:

  • 4 cartons of orange & pineapple juice from Appy Drinks: £1.99
  • Lorina coconut and lime drink: £1.49
  • The Snack Organisation freeze dried strawberries:  £1
  • The Snack Organisation sweet thai chilli rice crackers, 100g: £1
  • Cirio bottle of La Classica passata & tin of chopped tomatoes: £2.25
  • Liberation Foods Baked chilli & lime cashews with peanuts and roasted corn: £2
  • Provena gluten free chocolate muffin mix with chocolate chips, 300g: £3.79
  • Box of 5 Original 9Bars, with seeds and carob: £2.49
  • Kabuto noodles: £1.99
  • 2 x 90g packs Chip Strips in sour cream & onion, and sweet paprika: £2
  • Voucher for President Normandy Butter: £2

Wow! Amazing! A total of £22 of food for only £4.99! Even sounds good compared to the normal price of £12.99 a month!

But it made me think about what actually counts as a bargain.

I don't really feel as if I've saved £17.01, because I would never normally buy this quantity of branded and processed foods.

We don't eat anywhere near this volume of soft drinks, crisps, nuts, treats and convenience foods on a monthly basis.

Instead, I had a think about what I'd normally buy, and what I now don't have to buy because I bought a Degustabox.

So for example, now I don't have to buy fancy crisps when we next have visitors, or a multi-pack of drinks cartons when we take a packed lunch on an outing.

Here's the breakdown:

Predictably, my children loved the Sponge Bob drinks, just because of the picture.

Pack of 4 Appy juice Drinks: if I'm buying the children cartons or bottles as a special treat, I tend to buy Fruit Shoots on offer (parental food police: shoot me now). I wait until I can get eight for £2.50, so allow £1.25 for four.

Climbing on the coconut band wagon. 

Lorina lime & coconut drink: I rarely buy fancy soft drinks, only really mixers like lemonade, tonic water and soda water. A litre of Sainsbury's tonic water costs 50p, and hey I have been known to push the boat out and squeeze a lime into tonic water, so add 35p (much as it pains me to put the price of a single lime, rather than one from a multipack).

Sounded fun, tasted a bit weird

Freeze dried fruit: the children ate it as a snack, and I do occasionally buy them Bear Yo Yo fruit snacks, when the boxes of five are on offer for £2. Maybe allow 80p for two?

We're partial to sweet chilli flavours, so these crackers went down a treat

Exceedingly long strips of  crisps, slightly weird taste, but fine. 

Rice crackers and Chip Strips: I lay in stocks of fancy Aldi Passions Hand Cooked crisps when people come round, which are 79p for a 150g bag. So allow £1.58 for a couple of bags, to match the same weight of rice crackers and Chip Strips.

Cashews - great. Peanuts - good. Roasted corn? Not so much.

Liberation foods cashews/peanuts/corn: again, I'm more likely to stick to the Aldi crisps than nuts, but I do sometimes offer Sainsbury's Basics Roasted Salted Peanuts that I also use in cooking, which cost 70p for 200g.

Loved the branding, wasn't so keen on the noodles

Kabuto noodles: I don't buy instant noodles, but my husband is occasionally seduced by supernoodle cravings, which at last count cost 50p from the Co-op.

No butter in the box, just a voucher to swap when you find a shop selling it.

President Butter: Morrisons British unsalted butter is good enough for me at 88p

I quite liked these, but the children rejected them,
possibly because they spotted the worthiness of some of the ingredients.

5 x 9Bar Original Carob Hit: I do sometimes buy individually wrapped bars like Clubs or Penguins as a treat for packed lunches, when they're on offer at 8 for £1, so 5 would cost 63p.

Chocolate muffins - what's not to like?

Provena Gluten Free chocolate muffin mix: I never buy cake mixes, mainly because I genuinely like baking, and tend to have the ingredients handy.
With this one, you have to add fat and eggs, so I suppose it's the equivalent of a bag containing flour, sugar, cocoa and chocolate chips. I do buy Dove's Gluten Free flour, if I need to bake for people who can't eat wheat or gluten, and that costs £1.70 for 1kg, while Sainsbury's chocolate chips cost 80p for 100g, and their cocoa powder costs £2.00 for 250g. So maybe 50p chocolate chips plus 20p cocoa plus 40p flour, a total of £1.10 to make up 300g of muffin mix?
(If you'd like to find out how the cooked muffins turned out, see my post here.)

A nice tin of tomatoes that I was glad to use. 

Good quality passata, with a useful resealable lid.

Cirio chopped tomatoes and passata: I waver between value range chopped tomatoes, own brand and KTC, which come in at between 25p and 38p a can. Occasionally I stretch to Napolina when it's on offer at 50p a can. To be generous then, 50p for chopped tomatoes and another 50p for Morrison's own brand passata.

TOTAL: Drum roll please - £9.29

So the contents of the Degustabox mean I don't have to go out and spend £9.29.
Combined with the excitement of a parcel with lots of treats, I do think it justifies the £4.99 offer price.

I even signed up for the offer via TopCashback, so got a cash back credit of £2.32, reducing my expenditure to just £2.67. TopCashback are currently running a similar Degustabox offer, so you can sign up for only slightly more at £5.99 a month, and still get £2.32 cashback.

(If you haven't come across cashback websites before, I did about a blog about them here
If you fancy trying out TopCashback, whether for Degustabox or anything else, via this link you can get a £5 Amazon voucher once you've earnt £10 cashback, and they'll bung me a tenner as Tell-A-Friend cashback).

However, I won't be continuing with the Degustabox monthly subscription at £12.99.

I would never normally spend anywhere near this amount each month on this type of food. Apart from anything else, I don't want the temptation of all those crisps, nuts and snack food lying around!

I'd love to know your views, as obviously, these calculations just reflect my own food preferences and purchases.

If you love trying new snacks with quirky ingredients, and prefer branded, packaged foods, then Degustabox could be a great fun.

Anyone else tried to Degustabox, or have thoughts on whether it would be worthwhile to them?

Disclaimer: I bought Degustabox off my own bat, and wasn't sent a box to review or anything like that. Much as I'd love to have lots of people charge off to buy it via my TopCashBack Tell-A-Friend link, I've chosen to give my own unvarnished opinions of the contents.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Meal planning from the contents of my cupboards

Shopping based on meal planning: £18.02

I often struggle to find the time to plan our meals, because life has a habit of getting in the way.
Everyone still needs feeding, whether or not I've had the chance to read, plan, shop or cook. Who knew?

However, I do think planning meals, and adapting my shopping accordingly, can lead to lower bills.

While trying to cut our food costs in February, here's how I came up with a rough and ready meal plan.

The big idea was use up food we already had in the house, and only buy the extra items needed for those meals.

I therefore started with a quick stock take, looking in the cupboards, fridge and freezer to remind myself of what was available.

At first glance, the answer was "not much", but I did come up with some ideas.

Main meals for the whole family

Prawn stir fry with noodles. 
The bonus with this meal was that we had all the ingredients anyway.
Based on my shopping so far in February, I had already stashed a yellow-stickered pack of prawns in the freezer, which could be stir fried with green and red peppers, onion, carrot, broccoli and garlic.
I could then add root ginger, soy sauce and egg noodles from the store cupboard.

Pizzas for movie night
Friday night pizzas are a staple in our house.
I already have most of the ingredients we use - value range mozzarella, cheddar, tomato puree, red pesto, strong white flour and a yeast sachet - and would just need to buy some black olives and ham for extra toppings.

Roast chicken with roast potatoes and winter veg
I plan to use some of my yellow-stickered bargains from the Co-op for a weekend lunch - the hefty whole chicken and swede, parsnip and carrots from the stew pack - plus potatoes from the massive sack I bought at the start. From the stores I'll need a lemon, garlic and parsley from the garden, plus my daughter's favourite chicken gravy pot.

Main meals for my husband and I

Pasta Puttanesca
My son has developed a taste for tinned fish, after scoffing a tin of sardines in tomato sauce, and decided to start one morning by opening a tin of anchovies. One cut finger and a plaster later, and I have an open tin of anchovies to use up.
The combination of anchovies and the black olives I needed to buy for the pizzas made me think of pasta puttanesca.
It's a quick and easy recipe with strong flavours, based on long-lasting store cupboard ingredients.
I already have chilli flakes, olive oil, tinned tomatoes and capers, and could grab some flat leaf parsley from the garden. Although I don't have enough spaghetti left for two people, I could bulk it out with a part-opened pack of penne. Sorted.

Chicken curry and rice
I have a combination of real chicken and Quorn chicken pieces in the freezer, which I think are destined for a curry, potentially with the addition of the cut-price cauliflower, tinned potatoes, yellow split peas and rice that needs using up. I already have the remains of some Patak's curry pastes in the fridge, but will need to check if any other specific ingredients are needed.

Carrot, cumin and kidney bean burgers
I bought a tin of kidney beans thinking I'd make chill with some mince in the freezer - only to discover we didn't have any mince left. #planningfail.
So instead, I fancy making Jack Monroe's carrot, cumin and kidney beans burgers, eaten in buns with iceberg lettuce, tomato and mango chutney. The only thing I need to buy is the wholemeal rolls.

Light meals & lunches

Bacon, cheese, leek and red onion tart
We don't have enough eggs for quiche, but I do have puff pastry in the freezer, a couple of rashers of bacon and a tired leek that need using up. By softening the leek with onion and adding grated cheese, I can make a quick light and tasty tart suitable for packed lunches.

Feta, pea and courgette fritters with salad. 
I'd already bought some value range feta and a courgette, intending to make these fritters for a light meal, but hadn't got round to it yet. It would use up the last egg and couple of spring onions with the flour, milk and peas we already have.

Leftover stalks and leaves soup
I've been hoarding veg that would otherwise go in the bin - broccoli stalks, feathery ends of celery, the outer leaves from the cauliflower and carrot peelings. I reckon I now have enough to supplement with potatoes and a veg stock cube as leftover stalks and leaves soup. If it makes it more palatable, just think of it as winter veg soup.

Children's meals 

Macaroni cheese
Macaroni cheese is one of my stalwart recipes when children come round to play, which makes it handy during half term, and any leftovers go down well as my husband's packed lunch.
I've got enough cheese, butter and milk in the fridge, and could raid the store cupboard for flour and macaroni. I also add frozen peas to macaroni, in an attempt to get my kids to eat more veg, plus a crunchy topping, made from breadcrumbs from leftover crusts. 

I have half a pack of tortilla wraps left to use up. The children like "crispy triangles" as they call them, when you sandwich grated cheese and chopped ham between two tortillas, dry fry it in a frying pan so the cheese melts and the wraps go crispy, and chop into triangles.

Frankfurters, mash and carrots
I still have half a pack of frankfurters in the freezer from earlier in February, so could either make mini toad in the hole again, or serve them with mashed potatoes from the sack, gravy and cooked carrots.

Creamy salmon pasta with peas
We have double cream left over from the bread and butter pudding when the cousins came. SMoked salmon is one of the few fish my daughter will eat, so if I can find some on offer, I can make creamy salmon pasta and peas with the addition of some pasta, frozen peas, grated hard cheese and lemon zest from the stores.

Smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels
We're planning some outings during half term, so I need some options for packed lunches.
We already have a tub of soft cheese, so if there's any smoked salmon left over and I buy some bagels, we have an alternative to standard sandwiches.

Ham sandwiches
If I buy ham and a wholemeal loaf, I can also churn out assorted sandwiches for packed lunches too, supplemented with the cucumber and tomato I bought last week.

Shopping list

Looking at the 15 meal ideas listed above, the only things I need to buy are:

Jar of black olives for pizzas and pasta puttanesca
Ham for pizzas, quesadillas and packed lunches
Wholemeal rolls for carrot, cumin and kidney beans burgers
Bagels for packed lunches
Smoked salmon on offer, for creamy pasta and bagels
Packed lunch supplies, like a sliced loaf, multipack of crisps and some yogurt tubes
Lots of fruit

Shopping in practice

I've posted a picture of the shopping I ended up buying at the top of this post - £18.02 in total. Apart from milk, I'm hoping this will get us through most of the week.

When I got to Morrisons, I had a look in the reduced section and also picked up a dozen cut-price free-range eggs for £1.35, which will help with omelettes and baking, plus a pack of 9 Hovis crumpets reduced to 49p which will go in the freezer. I even found a pack of six wholemeal rolls, which were on my list, down to 25p.

Any top tips for making meal planning easy?

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Shopping update for February's frugal food

Yesterday I happily threw around figures about what we'd spent on food, but didn't get the chance to post the pics in all their technicolour glory.

So given I have been dutifully lining up my shopping on the kitchen table to preserve for posterity, here's the update.


In the first week of February, I racked up food bills for £60.12 in just 4 days as posted here, but that still wasn't the end.

On the Friday, my husband stopped off at Sainsbury's for petrol, so I asked him to pick up some toiletries and store cupboard staples in the hope of winning gazillions of Nectar points on some Nectar promotion.

The food came to a not overly extravagant £3.50 (Basics beef stock cubes, Basics lemon curd, Basics version of Weetabix and Sainsbury's version of mini shredded wheats).

Bring on the Basics: £3.50

We did win some Nectar points - a whole 200. Swizz. This is worth a pound's worth of Sainsbury's shopping. There go my dreams of early retirement.

We went away for the weekend, and bought some sausage rolls during our drive back (£2.70, wolfed down before they got anywhere near a camera) and my husband also bought a couple of big bottles of milk when he went out for the paper (£2.23).

£2.23 milk receipt, as we've drunk the bottles.
So kerching, the final total for the first week of February was a not-entirely-frugal £68.55.


During week 2, I tried to shop specifically for that week's meals, rather than worrying about what else we had run out of. In practice, I couldn't resist picking up the odd yellow-stickered bargain.

I held out until Tuesday evening for any top up shopping, and then stuck to fresh fruit, veg and dairy products, plus some eggs and a tin of sardines.

I hesistated over the reduced-price pack of king prawns, with 215g for £2.75, and caved in on the basis they'd be great in a curry or stir fry.

I also found myself hesitating in front of the cheese shelves, poised to pick up a small pack of cheese just to keep the total shopping bill lower.

In the end I came to my senses, and bought two larger packs on offer. The bigger quantity cost less per kilo, and we'll definitely eat it all, so the smaller size seemed a false economy.

Kerching: £13.45.

£13.45 for restrained top up shopping.

When I took my daughter out to spend her pocket money, we went via the Co-op for some essentials. Turns out my version of essentials is ham, cucumber anc cut-price tomatoes, while hers is Fab ice lollies, which she deemed essential as pudding for the cousins coming at the weekend. Total: £5.25

£5.25 for different definitions of essentials

Receipts on Day 9 for Morrisons top up shopping and Day 11 Co-op essentials

Friday started well, when I went via the Co-op for milk and came away with some cut price veg. The locally-sourced cauliflower was reduced to 48p and the kilo stew pack of onions, carrots, swede and parsnip was only 50p (kerching, £2.98).

Milk and yellow-stickered veg: £2.98

But by the end of a difficult day, all my best plans for making large quantities of home-made pizza dough went out of the window. My husband ended up on an emergency run for supermarket pizzas, although we opted to add extra toppings to three frozen versions for £4.50, rather than fork out three times as much at the pizza counter.

Receipts for Day 12 Co-op milk and veg and  Morrisons emergency pizzas

If I'd been less frazzled, I would have planned the menu for the next day's visitors, and bought the missing ingredients in the same shopping trip. Instead I only realised the next day that we needed bread, veg and the double cream for bread & butter pudding (kerching, another £2.19)

Emergency pizzas and extras needed for lunch for 9: £4.50 and £2.19

Extras for the big lunch

The small shopping trips during Week 2 all added up to £28.37, so a lot less than the first week.

Over the two weeks, the food spending for our family of four averages out at just under £49 a week, so we have managed to spend less than January's £60 a week so far. 

Onwards and upwards into Week 3! Wish me luck, it's half term.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Update on cutting food bills in February

Using up panettone in bread and butter pudding

Now that we're half way through February, I had a quick zip round the kitchen cupboards, fridge and freezer to check what food we've eaten and what stores are left.

I started this month keen to spend less while eating more healthily, and use up assorted ingredients that have been lingering around a bit too long.

Here's a quick summary of how it's gone.


On the shopping side, I spent rather more than intended in the first week (as blogged here).
However I did manage to rein in my spending slightly more during the second week, despite resorting to frozen pizzas on Friday night and five assorted cousins coming over for lunch on Saturday.

Week 1 food shopping summary
Food bought: £68.55
Food left on 15 Feb: £19.87

Week 2 food shopping summary
Food bought: £28.37
Food left on 15 Feb: £12.75

Running total after 2 weeks
Food bought: £96.92
Food left on 15 Feb: £32.61

So after two weeks, our food spending for a family of four averages out just under £49 a week, which is definitely lower than the £60 a week we spent during January.

Of that, we've only eaten around £32 worth a week, topping up the food we already had in the house.


Using up Quorn chicken fillets and puff pastry from the freezer

Here's the progress on the abandoned ingredients I was keen to use up:

1. couple of massive turkey drumsticks, frozen since Christmas Made turkey and mushrooms in a creamy mustard sauce, as blogged here

2. few left over brussel sprouts Used in slightly strange bacon, brussel sprout and broad bean spaghetti and parsnips, also lingering since Christmas Went into winter veg soup 

3. part of a jar of mincemeat (are you beginning to sense a Christmas theme?)

4. a panettone (yup, still on Christmas) Made bread and butter pudding for the visitors this weekend

5. the remains of the Quorn mountain Used the bag of Quorn chicken fillets in puff pastry pie and Quorn chicken salad, still need to use up some Quorn chicken pieces and a couple of Quorn sausages.

6. couple of tubs of chicken stock stashed at the back of the freezer Waiting for risotto inspiration

7. basmati rice bought from Morrisons, which just doesn't cook the same as the Sainsbury's version

8. an abandoned cut price celeriac, bought with the best of intentions Used as smashed celeriac to accompany roasted red peppers with feta and cherry tomatoes, as blogged here (and I've now included the photo)

9. a tin of potatoes from nearly a year ago

10. untouched bag of yellow split peas, bought to make dahl and soup.

So I've made dents in half the list, but still have to get cracking on the rest. I reckon if I do some kind of curry, I could even use up the tinned potatoes, some of the split peas and some of the rice in one fell swoop.

Not much left in the fridge

Looking round the kitchen, the shelves seem pretty sparse and it feels like we have very little food left. 

We've eaten all the ham, decimated the fruit and only have a few slices of bread and a single egg left. Packaged food intended for the children, like yogurt tubes, multipack crisps and cereal, is nearly all gone. 

However, doing the stock take this morning made we realise we do have the ingredients for multiple meals with only limited top up shopping.

Hopefully in the midst of half term havoc I'll be able to post tomorrow about the potential store cupboard meals. 

Anyone else managing to cut back on their food costs?

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Visit from the chimney sweep

Chimney sweep's brushmaking advances to the TV aerial.

On Thursday, Dean Bond the chimney sweep came round to clean the chimneys.

Back in London, we had several fireplaces but no actual fires, so I never needed to find a chimney sweep.

Nowadays we do use four chimneys to a greater or lesser degree, even if we never light fires in the bedrooms.

The kitchen chimney is in constant use by the Aga and another is in regular use above the woodburner.
The fires in the dining room and sitting room are only lit on special occasions or when friends come to visit, but it still seems a good idea to get them cleaned.

So I book an appointment for Dean to come round roughly once a year, much as you might get a boiler serviced every year. He cleans everything up, checks for problems and dispenses words of wisdom based on his 30+ years of experience.

Cleaning the chimney above the Aga

The chimney sweep started at one end of the house, with the chimney above the Aga. Turns out it has a little door at the back of the stove pipe, and Dean has a specially small brush designed to fit up the pipe.

The big yellow cylinder on wheels is a massive vaccuum cleaner.

Here's a photo of the mini sweep's brush sticking out of the top of the kitchen chimney:

Mini chimney sweep's brush, out and proud

Next up was the dining room chimney. We really don't use it very often, but it happily sucks warm air out of the room all the time, and dirt and feathers drop down the chimney when the crows take up residence on the chimney pot.

Dean has suggested we make a sliding panel to cut out some of the air flow, by fixing a couple of L shaped iron bars either side of the chimney, and cutting a piece of wood to slide in and out over them. We could then remove the wood panel on the rare occasions we might light a fire. Apparently we'd need to put a small grille in the wood, so the chimney stayed ventilated rather than getting too cold and damp.

Cleaning the dining room chimney,
with a blanket fixed over the bottom half of the fireplace opening.

Elsewhere the woodburner was fitted since Dean's last visit. He's a big fan of woodburners, pointing out that an open fire is only about 25% efficient, whereas a woodburner is 80% efficient, so we get more heat from the woodburner than if we had three other fires all roaring away at the same time.

Cleaning the chimney above the woodburner

Usually I leave everything to do with the woodburner to my husband, but Dean showed me how to remove the metal plate that fits into the top of the woodburner at the back. He recommended taking it out once a month, to sweep off any soot that might have gathered and prevent a potential fire risk.

I love the fact that Dean keeps the handles that extend the sweep's brush in a golf bag, as you can see in the photo above. He takes out the handles one at a time, screwing them on to the current handle, and then pushing the extended handle up the chimney until the brush comes out above the chimney pot.
When he's pulling the brush back down, he unscrews each section and gives it a sharp tap on the remaining handle, to shake any soot off. You can see the black blanket under all the equipment to catch any dirt.

Checking the pot where the brush emerges

As each chimney was swept, we nipped outside to see where the brush emerged. The other pots are unused chimneys, leading from bedrooms. Think we have most of the unused pots capped off - while retaining some ventilation - to help stop dirt coming down and hot air surging upwards.

Cleaning the chimney in the sitting room

Finally it was the turn of the chimney in the sitting room. We don't use this fire too often as it doesn't draw very well, so tends to be a bit smokey. Dean suggested installing a deeper panel at the top of the fireplace opening - think you can just make out the current narrow black strip of metal, underneath the white mantelpiece.

Four chimneys done and dusted later, and Dean lifted up the corners of the blanket, picked up the bag of brushes and wheeled the vaccuum cleaner back to his van.

The combination of the dust sheet and all Dean's vacuuming meant the house was left in a cleaner state than when he arrived, instead of the sooty mess you might imagine. Now it's all done any dusted for another year or so.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Baking frenzy: biscuits, muffins & cookies

Last weekend we went to see various friends, and I decided to do some baking to take along as presents.

In my dim and distant youth, the appropriate present whenever you visited someone was always a bottle of wine. Whatever the time or occasion, a bottle of booze should crack it.

Now that we have all accumulated assorted offspring, it sometimes seems a bit mean to take along a present that excludes half the family (although the parents no doubt are always grateful for wine).

Cooking for friends also means you might get to try a couple, but then give the rest away so there's less risk of snarfing the entire tin.

So with afternoon visits planned to two families, and my own children to entertain, we got baking.


My son was dead set on cooking biscuits, so we started with a version of the New Zealand Biscuits from the venerable and multi million selling Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook.

The Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook was a colossus when first published in 1970, back in the days when Mary Berry was young, aspic was all the rage and a recipe involving fish, a can of condensed mushroom soup and a crushed bag of crisps counted as dinner.

Mary Berry, being young

You can only take these biscuits as a present for people you know and love, because they tend to spread on the baking tray and look embarrassingly incompetent. But once you try them, the combination of oats, syrup and coconut means you forget what they look like and just want another several.

This is what they're supposed to look like, in all their All Colour glory:

Recipe book perfection...

And here are my version, in all their mis-shapen chewy deliciousness:

...vs home-cooked reality

Over time I've tweaked the quantities in an attempt to make the biscuits spread a bit less:


50g golden syrup
140g Stork (or butter if you're feeling extravagant)
100g caster sugar
100g oats
50g dessicated coconut
120g plain flour
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda

I don't know if you can decipher the instructions in the photo, but basically put the syrup, Stork and sugar in a pan to melt over a gentle heat.
Then stir in all the oats, coconut, flour and bicarbonate of soda.
Wrestle your child into washing their hands and wearing an apron, and then equip yourselves with a teaspoon each. Avoid arguments by giving each person their own greased baking tray
Take it in turns to spoon out a smallish ball of the mixture and roll it around in your hands. Pop the balls on a greased baking tray with plenty of room between each, and maybe give them a small squish so they're a bit flatter.
I usually get about 20 biscuits out of these quantities.
Then bake for 14 to 20 minutes at 160 degrees C.
As ever in the Aga I put the tray on top of a rack on the floor of the roasting oven, bung in a cold shelf on the next set of runners up, and check on them after about 12 minutes.
When you take the trays out, leave them to cool a bit before transferring to a wire rack.
Then beat back biscuit thieves until you've eaten your own share.


This one is really a bit of a cheat, as I used a bag of Provena "Gluten-Free Chocolate Muffin Mix with Chocolate Chips".

Usually I don't buy bags of mixes as 1) I'm too mean 2) I don't find it much hassle cooking from basic ingredients 3) I tend to be a bit suspicious of what might be added and 4) I tend to be more suspicious of whether they're actually going to taste OK.

Anyway I got this muffin mix when I gave Degustabox a whirl, something I've been meaning to blog about for ages, but never got round to. (NB: If you're remotely interested in a post about Degustabox, do let me know, and I might even finish the half-written post. 
Update: I finally did finish the Degustabox post, and here it is)

Anyway I shoved the bag at the top of store cupboard, with a mental note to dig it out the next time we saw the gluten-free-friend-who-can-eat-chocolate, as opposed to the gluten-free-friend-who-can't-eat-chocolate-either. And Saturday was the big day, so I duly gave it a go.

The trickiest part by far was discovering the instructions, sneakily written in very small print just under the ingredients, which I'd assumed was some dense text about allergies.

But no, it was useful stuff telling me to add 150 ml melted margarine and 3 eggs to the mix, combine it all, and divide into 8 large or 20 small muffin cups. Then bake at 200 degrees on the middle shelf of the oven for 13 to 17 minutes.

Muffin mix: before

So I melted some Stork, mixed in the eggs, and decanted it into 16 normal size (as opposed to lorry-like) cupcake cases and trusted to luck and the Aga temperature. Currently our Aga has decided that the temperature guage on the front is an optional extra, so we're flying even blinder than normal. Think they took about 14 minutes, so a bit longer than I'd expected.

Ta dah, chocolate muffins

As you'll see from the photo, the muffins rose nicely. They tasted light and fluffy and a bit unsubstantial. However, calling them chocolate chip muffins is a stretch, because any chocolate chips were invisible to the naked eye, and trust me, I looked.

The eggs and Stork I used to make up the muffins cost 4p per muffin.
However, I've just checked online, and if you want to buy a bag of the muffin mix, it costs £3.79 for 300g from Holland & Barrett.
That means the muffins would cost 28p each in total - way higher than the cookies or biscuits made from scratch. No wonder I avoid mixes.

I even got to try out my cupcake carrier from Poundland, purchased for all of (you've guessed it) £1.

Muffins transported in Poundland's finest.

It is a bit flimsy, but hey it does the job. It only has the space for 12, so I kept four muffins in the tin for post-swimming lesson sustenance and packed lunches. I also used up one more of the packets in my storecupboard, so the muffins were a winner all ways round.


After the weekend, my daughter wanted to do some cooking too, and specifically requested chocolate chip cookies. I tried arguing for raisins, but no, only chocolate chips would do. This was slightly tricky as we didn't have any chocolate chips, but we did have a part-opened pack of value-range dark cooking chocolate, so I chopped that up instead.

I use this tried-and-tested Netmums recipe for easy chewy soft cookies.
It doesn't use any egg, so if you make the biscuits with raisins, and use Stork in a bar rather than a tub, they're dairy free.

Choc chip cookies. Yum. 


100g Stork or butter if you're that way inclined
100g soft brown sugar (or any sugar, really)
1 tbsp (approx 20g) golden syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
150 self-raising flour
50g chocolate chips, or raisins, or chopped up chocolate, or whatever you fancy really.

Mix the Stork or butter, sugar, syrup and vanilla extract together.
Then add the flour and chocolate, and mix again.
Divide the mixture into about 15 pieces and roll into balls between your hands.
Space them out on a greased baking tray. I do flatten them a bit, even if the original recipe tells you not to.
Bake for about 10 minutes if you want chewy cookies, and a bit longer if you like them to go crispy.
Haul them out of the oven, leave to cool for a few minutes, and transfer to a wire rack. Will keep for a few days in an airtight tin if they don't get eaten beforehand.

As my son said yesterday evening: "These aren't good, they're DELICIOUS".

He then went off to Beavers with chocolate on his face, which I only noticed when collecting him at the end. Sigh.

Prices based on shopping list from Morrisons, unless otherwise specified.
Lyles Golden Syrup in a squeezy bottle, when on offer at 600g for £1
Stork, 1 kg for £2
Caster sugar, 1kg for £1.48
Savers oats, 1kg for 75p
Dessicated coconut, 200g for £1.12
Savers plain or self-raising flour, 1.5kg for 45p
Savers dark chocolate, 100g for 30p
Dark brown soft sugar, 1kg for £2.42
Mixed weight free range eggs, 15 for £2
N Massey Pure Vanilla Extract, 118ml for £5.42 (ouch but worth investing if you can, as you use tiny amounts and it lasts for ages)
Sainsbury's Bicarbonate of Soda, 180g for 85p

Looks like Holland & Barrett sells the bags of Provena Gluten-Free Chocolate Muffin Mix with Chocolate Chips, 300g for £3.79.

Disclaimer: no sponsorship, no freebies, just the ingredients, equipment and recipes I use.