Thursday, 30 June 2016

Troubled times ahead

Voting at Hadleigh Town Hall

It seems hard to believe that it was only a week ago when I woke up, worried, at one o'clock in the morning and never went back to bed.

This is not a political blog, so I won't dwell on the results of the EU referendum.

The issues are deeply divisive, and I live surrounded by a majority of people who voted for exactly this decision.

Amidst the chaos of the last week, the only certainty seems to be that there are troubled times ahead.

I write this blog about living on less and making the most of it. In future, I fear this will be relevant to more of us than ever before.


Elderflowers above the oil tank

On a purely domestic level, last week I wavered over whether to order heating oil before or after the referendum.

I had finally got round to gathering elderflowers for cordial from above the oil tank (recipe in this post), and realised we had little oil left. As oil prices can vary wildly, I worried about making an expensive mistake.

In the end, I bit the bullet and ordered 2,000 litres which were delivered on referendum day. We were running so low I didn't really have a choice.

I got a new quote this morning, just to see. Due to the collapsing pound, the price has jumped 8%. If I'd waited, I would have shelled out an extra £50 plus for our fuel.

This time, I was lucky and managed to save some money. Next time, following the referendum result, I fear our oil and many other costs may be higher.

Batten down the hatches, we're in for a bumpy ride.


This year's batch of elderflower cordial.
I may need to add something distinctly stronger...

How do you think you will be hit by the Brexit vote, if at all?

Monday, 13 June 2016

My latest Mirror Online article: how I slashed our food bill by a third

Clearer cupboard at the end of February

My latest article for Mirror Online led to a rather unexpected appearance on the radio.

I was asked to write an article about our family's month-long attempt to spend less while eating more healthily, which appeared here:
http://www.mirror.co.uk/money/how-slashed-food-bill-third-8122389

I actually made the attempt to cut our food bills during February, which is why there are references to Christmas leftovers like mincemeat and panettone.

Back in January, our food bills were running at £60 a week for our family of four, and during a month I slashed nearly a third off our shopping.

Our bills came down to just under £43 a week, of which we actually ate just under £40 a week in addition to the food already in the house, saving a third.

In the article, I run through my 10 top tips on cutting food bills:

1. Cut down, but keep cooking
2. Use up what you have at home
3. Read up on recipes and make a meal plan
4. Combine odds and ends
5. Buy what you need, not what's run out
6. Switch to cheaper options
7. Stop shopping!
8. Plan ahead
9. Clear space, get rid of guilt
10. Find a balance

If you are interested in reading anything more about our cost cutting attempts, here are links to the posts I wrote at the time:

10 tips for cutting February's food bills
Stock take and storecupboards starting February
First meals in February
How (not) to shop for a frugal food challenge
Frugal food and cooking ahead
Baking frenzy: biscuits, muffins and cookies
Update on cutting food bills in February
Shopping update for February's frugal food
Meal planning from the contents of my cupboards
Cutting food bills during February - week 3 update
Cutting food bills in February - final week
Results of cutting food bills in February: saved 30%

Entertainingly, the article then led to my first appearance on the radio.

The producer of the Paul Ross breakfast show on talkRADIO got in touch. He said he'd seen my article on the Mirror website, and asked if they could chat to me on the phone about how I cut my bills.

What the hell, I thought. It might be fun. Why not?

We arranged that he'd call the next morning after I was back from the school run.

I duly got up the next day feeling rather nervous, reread my article, and tried to think of some suitable sound bites in response to questions about cutting family food bills. I wrote a quick list of the kind of meals I cooked, so I could refer to a couple of examples if needed. I even downloaded an app onto my phone so I could listen to Paul Ross, rather than the normal background murmur of Radio 4.

Finally, the phone rang, there was a quick question about if I was ready to talk to Paul, and suddenly I was listening to his programme from the phone handset rather than my mobile. Then he started doing an introduction all about saving money on food - for five days - really cheaply - and all for UNICEF and Live Below the Line...

...and suddenly I'm responding to questions on live radio not about family food bills and my Mirror article, but the charity challenge I did more than a year ago.

So that was a bit odd.

It was still great to plug Live Below the Line and UNICEF, both of which I support immensely, even if the Live Below the Line challenge didn't run this year.

I managed to mention how value ranges can make a real difference when feeding yourself on £1 a day, which shops offer them, and how incredibly lucky I am not to have so little to spend on food permanently compared to so many billions of people elsewhere. I didn't handle the poverty tourism question as well as I would have liked (I've written more coherently about it in the past here), but hey we both survived.

And suddenly he's saying goodbye, and the producer's back on the phone saying it might be good to talk to me another time, and I say fine, and then it's all over.

So if anyone else wants any soundbites on cutting family food bills, and suggestions for child-friendly cheap and cheerful meals - I'm primed and ready to go!

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Fruit scones for a royal birthday

Nearest we got to a street party

The nearest I got to celebrating the Queen's official birthday today was making some fruit scones.

But I did use the recipe that appeared in the most recent National Trust magazine, for maximum British overtones.

Usually I stick to cheese scones, and attempt to make them part of a meal, with soup and a salad.

But today we went full on cream tea, chucking in shedloads of sultanas, and eating them with a pot of yellow-stickered whipping cream picked up in the Co-op and plenty of strawberry jam.

Scones have the advantage that they're quick and simple to make. You might have to buy some cream specially, but the other ingredients are cheap and cheerful storecupboard staples.

RECIPE FOR NATIONAL TRUST FRUIT SCONES


Scones on the cooling rack
Serves 8

Ingredients
450g / 1lb self-raising flour
115g / 4oz soft margarine (I used Stork)
85g / 3oz caster sugar
85g / 3oz sultanas
1 egg, beaten
200ml / 7 fl oz milk
Jam and cream to serve

Method
Preheat the oven to 200C/ Gas Mark 6.
Rub the flour into the margaine until the mixture resembles fine crumbs, or put the whole lot into the bowl of an electric mixer and let the mixer do the hard work for you.
Stir in the sugar and sultanas.
Add the egg, and gradually mix in SOME BUT NOT ALL of the milk - only 150ml / quarter pint - to make a soft dough.
Knead lightly on a floured surface then roll out thickly to a generous 2cm thickness, or two fingers.
Stamp out circles using a 7cm / 2 and three quarter inch fluted biscuit cutter and transfer the scones onto a lightly oiled baking sheet.
Knead the trimmings and continue rolling and stamping until you have made eight scones.
Brush the top of the scones with a little of the remaining milk, then bake for 10 to 15 minutes until well risen and golden brown.
Leave for 10 minutes or so, then transfer to a cooling rack.
Serve warm, split and topped with jam and clotted cream.

I lost my nerve faced with the value range self-raising flour, and bunged in a teaspoon of baking powder, and the scones definitely rose to the occasion. It turns out it's actually quite tricky to cut through cooked sultanas with a biscuit cutter - who knew?

Anyway they went down well with the whole family. According to my six-year-old son, they tasted so good "they make my toes wiggle". He then asked for another one, so I'm assuming that was a good thing.


Plenty of jam, plenty of cream

Anyone else partial to a cream tea on occasion?

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Two years ago yesterday...

Wisteria over the front door to our new home

Yesterday marked two years since we moved, swapping Stoke Newington for Suffolk.

Then as now the sun was shining as we traipsed up and down the path with the removal men, unloading our lives into a new house.

My memory of moving is tied up with the scent of roses, due to the enormous cloud of white blooms round the kitchen door. (photo on this post here)

This year they're not out quite yet, although there's an impressive array of buds ready to burst into flower.


Mass of rosebuds poised to burst into bloom

Some of the other roses are already flowering though, including the pink roses next to the back door.

Pink roses round the back door this afternoon

Sometimes it seems like we've hardly done anything since moving - I still have boxes left to unpack!

But we have done some stuff, like getting the outside of the house repainted, fixing slipped tiles, guttering, rotted window frames and broken bricks, fitting a woodburner and putting back three much-needed internal doors.

Wood burner in action

My husband and I reflected on how, apart from all the changes with work and schools, we're now a bit more settled into our new environment

When I took the children to the park yesterday, a mother I knew came to sit on the same bench and recommended other great places to go in nearby Ipswich. During the swimming class I could talk to another mother about the Couch to 5K running pogramme (posts here, here and here), and arrange a time for our children to play.

Later on my husband went out running with the Hadleigh Hares. On Sunday, the children are looking forward to revisiting the annual Duck and Raft Race near Toppesfield Bridge, now that my son has joined Beavers.

Who knows what the next year will hold, but we're still enjoying our new life in Hadleigh.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Stretching smoked fish: kedgeree recipe

Easy peasy lemon squeezy kedgeree

Mmmmm. Kedgeree. It's a great way of stretching smoked fish to go further.

Although it's traditionally made with smoked haddock, I reckon it works well with other smoked fish too.

It may be shackled by visions of country house breakfasts and Anglo Indian majors pashawing through their handlebar moustaches, but in reality it's a great combo of smoked fish, light curry spices and rice, and it's great for dinner.

So last week, when I spotted some smoked cod in the reduced section of the Co-op, I grabbed it and ran for the till.

My preferred recipe is based on a highly entertaining book called "The Prawn Cocktail Years", by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham, which is part cookbook and part social history through food, from post-war hotels to bistros and trattorias.

Much as I love the taste of kedgeree, my early attempts involved much faffing around with poaching fish, cooking rice, boiling eggs and then a mountain of washing up.

The recipe in the Prawn Cocktail Years involves a single casserole dish and a frying pan and I view as a great improvement. OK so it uses an omelette rather than boiled eggs (controversial!) but hey it still tastes great.

As an added bonus, the recipe is genuinely gluten-free, rather than involving any weird and wonderful ingredients, if you or someone you're cooking for needs an appropriate meal.

It's also great because most of the ingredients are storecupboard staples that I normally have knocking about. If I spot smoked fish, the only other fresh stuff that needs adding to the shopping list is coriander, spring onions and an optional green chillies.

Ingredients for kedgeree

KEDGEREE RECIPE

Quantity serves 2 greedy people, or 3 being polite.

Ingredients

30g butter
1 tbsp curry powder
200g basmati rice, rinsed and drained
100g tinned sweetcorn, drained
300ml chicken stock
Half a teaspoon of saffon threads, if you have them. I didn't, so my rice didn't go so yellow.
2 bay leaves
300g or so smoked fish, skinned (I use whatever size the packet is)
1 green chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped
15g butter
2 eggs, beaten
4 spring onions, thinly chopped
1 heaped tablespoon fresh coriander, chopped
Half  a lemon, cut in 2 or 3 chunks.

Method

Preheat the oven to 350F / 180C / Gas Mark 4.

Heft your casserole dish onto the hob, melt the butter and add the curry powder. When the butter has melted and the curry powder has sizzled a bit, add the rice and sweetcorn and fry very gently, stirring so the rice gets coated in the butter and curry powder.

Next, pour in the stock, add the bay leaves and the saffron if you're using it. I'd run out, so I didn't. If you're keen on the yellow colour, you can always add a quarter teaspoon of turmeric instead.

Add the skinned smoked fish, slipping the fillets under the rice. Then put on the lid, put the dish in the oven, and bake for 15 minutes.

While it's cooking, get on with chopping the green chilli, spring onions and coriander. Mix the finely chopped chilli into the beaten egg. Melt the butter in a frying pan and pout in the egg. Allow it to set, making a thin omelette. Flip the omeletter over to cook the other side, so that both sides are pale golden. Then take it out onto a chopping board, allow it to cool slightly and cut into thin strips.

When the fish is ready, take the casserole dish out of the oven. Do not remove the lid for 10 minutes.
Afterwards, take the lid off, and use a couple of works to flake the fish into chunks and mix it in with the rice. Add the omelette, spring onions and coriander, stir round a bit and serve with a lemon chunk to squeeze over the top.

Just don't pull a muscle, hefting your casserole dish around
Cost
Making kedgeree last week reminded me how I've got used to checking the cut-price shelves whenever I'm in a supermarket.

Aside from the smoked cod, the spring onions, eggs and green chilli were all short-dated bargains, so this was a great recipe for using things up! I also got to pick a couple of bay leaves from the over enthusiastic tree in the garden.

I reckon in total I spent £3.57 on this meal for two, so £1.79 per person.

15.5p for 45g butter in total, from a 250g bar of Morrisons unsalted butter, 87p
3p for 1 tbsp curry powder, from the 100g bag of TKS garam masala originally bought for 60p for the Live Below the Line challenge (post here)
34p for 200g basmati rice, from a 1kg bag of Morrisons basmati rice, £1.71
20p for 100g tinned sweetcorn, from a 326g tin (260g drained weight), 53p from Morrisons
3p for 300ml chicken stock, using a stock cube from a pack of 10 Sainsbury's Basics Chicken Stock Cubes, 30p
£2.22 for yellow stickered pack of 280g smoked cod from the Co-op, £2.22
9.5p for a green chilli, from a pair in a yellow-stickered pack from the Co-op, 19p
15p for 2 eggs, from a yellow-stickered box of 4 Havensfield Free Range Eggs from the Co-op, 50p
12.5p for 4 spring onions, half of a yellow-stickered bunch from the Co-op, 25p
10p for 1 heaped tablespoon of fresh coriander, part of a 72p bunch from Morrisons
12.5p for half  a lemon, using up a lemon I'd already peeled to use the zest in cous cous the day before, from a 5 pack from Morrisons for £1.26

Anyone else willing to confess to a kedgeree habit, given half a chance? Or have alternative recipes for smoked cod?