Thursday, 24 June 2010

Travels and flowers

Oh dear. My attempts to avoid budget airlines and becoming more-carbonly-neutral do not seem to be working out quite as planned this summer, partially because many of our favourite people live away (and my favourite band released teasing European dates without English dates...)

J's best friend Phil has been living in Delft for the last year or so. We've been over to see him once, and saw him again at a Belgian festival last summer. Phil's also made it over here a couple of times - but not nearly as often as we'd like to see him. After much discussion we're going over for the weekend in mid-July, and I thought I'd try and see what the trains were like. Unfortunately - woeful. The journey times (even taking into account getting to/from airports at either end) are twice as long, and cost twice as much. It appears impossible to travel by train between London and Rotterdam without taking out a small mortgage, so VLM it is. I can't wait to see Rotterdam, too - apparently it's even prettier that Delft, which has already stolen my heart as one of the loveliest Dutch cities. The picture on the left wasn't taken wonkily - the church really does lean over to a disturbing degree.

We had such a good time the last time (even if we did end up looking like this by the end of the evening after one too many extremely strong Dutch beers) that it wouldn't feel like summer really without a trip over to say hello and see Phil and his partner Janneke's new place.

On the home front, the garden is changing daily as more and more of the climbers and pots start to flower. The mysterious plant Anne gave me (and swore was very pretty) has now flowered. I'm still not sure what it's called, but look: purple and gorgeous! The first three to blossom are the first of many, too, if the buds do what they look as if they will (and the slimy beasts don't get there first). The daisies are also going great guns; this happened after a little bit of deadheading whilst having a cigarette a couple of afternoons ago. The only thing I'm unsure about is the shocking pink geranium... it didn't look like this in the garden centre, honest...

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Enjoying the fruits of labour

After a weekend sorting out the house and several weekends over the last few months getting on top of the garden, I've been wandering around this evening enjoying the results. 

When I start my new job at the end of July, I'm going to need somewhere to work for the two days a week or so I'll be working from home. And ta-da! A home office to be proud of. All I need now is a desk, which'll fit along the left hand wall where you can just about see the mirror in this shot. And as it's the only room in the house which gets much natural light, it's also slightly jungly with all the houseplants in here. The best part is that J can't get too jealous of me hogging the room as there's plenty of space for (all five of) his guitars.

The garden too is looking great, if a little overgrown. All the heat, sun and squally showers has left it greener than I thought possible. I only handweeded the entire damn patio a month ago - and a green carpet is now covering it.

One of the surprising successes of the spring though is a fuchsia that came from Anne's garden, and almost completely died in the snows of last year. Little by little, it's been looking more and more lively, and finally rewarded my patience with buds this weekend. Look! Buds! And the fuchsia which was here first is also looking nice, too. Last year it had become completely clogged with suckers and barely flowered, but after a good clear out in the spring has come back with a vengeance. 

The right hand side of the garden is completely overgrown, though, not least because the lilac plant there has shot up 6 foot since the spring, with a buddliea that has done the same but twice over in the same period of time. I need to get busy with the hacksaw next weekend. Another candidate for world domination (well, at least back-garden-at-26a-domination) is this.

What is it? And where did it come from!? I swear it wasn't there last year. One of the nice things about gardening here for the second year is the sheer volume of surprises every season brings. The landlady (who lived here for years before renting the flat out) spent summers in the south of France and came back with all sorts of cuttings, bulbs and seeds, which she scattered around the garden. So there are orange poppies pushing up underneath the wisteria-honeysuckle-jasmine-fuchsia confusion around upstairs' spiral staircase into the garden, and hollyhocks showing up in the raspberry patch. Which brings me to my favourite part of gardening: being able to wander around it when I come home from work, finding two perfectly ripe strawberries for eating *right now* and just enough raspberries to make a little pudding after dinner.

The best part is that only a few seem to ripen every day (just enough for a small bowl to share) but then there are always more getting ready for tomorrow or the next day. The garden-project though has not been without its trials.

This is pretty much me nil, snails one, at least where the marigolds are concerned. Four weeks ago, the planters on the right (begonias, which appear strangely slimy-thing immune) were lacklustre-looking green foliage and not much more, whilst the marigolds were a glorious mix of orange, yellow and red, giving a bit of much needed colour to what was then a pretty much green-and-white colour scheme. And what on earth has happened to my previously-luxuriously green rosemary? All I did was replant it into a larger pot, give it some compost to get its potbound roots to dig into, some fertiliser and started an organic (i.e. squish every last m.f. one of them) war against iridescent rosemary and lavender bugs. Oh dear.  I'll leave you with the happiest member of the Smallwood-Darlington household where the garden comes into it: La Mojita, who manages to spend an extraordinary amount of time curled up in the pot, atop the soil, around the base of the lilac tree. Whatever makes her happy!

Monday, 21 June 2010

Cold and manflu cure

I've always been a firm believer that what you eat impacts on your mood and health more than almost any other factor - and when faced with mopey ill partner, my thoughts immediately turn to comforting, soothing, healing food. J woke up yesterday with the beginnings of a cold. As both of us were sneezing like... well, sneezy people, what with all the dust yesterday I thought I'd give it 24 hours to check he was actually ill before food-ministry.

I spent a while googling chicken soup recipes that took less than three hours to cook (seriously, who has three hours to cook after work?) and for which I had most of the ingredients for in the house. I found something perfect on BBC Recipes, not a particular favourite of mine (I generally find All Recipes a bit more useful). I was looking for something with a little spice which to clear out his head-cold and be nourishing, pique a diminished appetite and be generally life-affirming.

If you make Thai or Malaysian on a regular-ish basis, the ingredients for Spicy Chicken Dumpling Soup should be mostly to hand with just a couple of fresh ingredients to buy on the way home from work. I'm not posting the link directly as I made a few amendments (some of the quantities were really odd) and this turned out delicious.

Here's a picture someone else made earlier (notice that you can also use udon noodles apparently as well as rice ones, although the delicacy of the rice noodles is nice with the lumpiness of the dumplings).Mine didn't quite end up looking like this but not far off - the aim is a fragrant coconutty broth with bite-sized dumplings.

For the chicken dumplings

- 2 medium-sized chicken breasts, minced (no, nowhere sells chicken mince, as I found out this afternoon. Putting them through the cheese grater function on a food processor does a pretty good job; equally dicing it very, very finely should do the trick too)
- Half a small can of bamboo shoots, drained, chopped finely
- 1 long red chilli, seeds removed, chopped finely
- 2 tsps freshly grated ginger
- 2 tbsps chopped coriander leaves
- 2 tsps nam pla (fish sauce)
- 2 tbsps cornflour
- salt and fresh ground black pepper

For the soup

- 800ml chicken stock (I used Knorr concentrate as I'd run out of homemade, was perfectly nice)
- 1 large can coconut milk
- 2 kaffir lime leaves
- 1.5 inch piece of root ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
- 1 tbsp nam pla
- Juice of one lime (small)
- Pinch caster sugar
- 4 baby pak choi (I couldn't find baby ones so used 2 regular sized, with the cores cut out, which tasted fine)
- 1 sachet of Amoy ready-to-wok rice noodles

To serve

- 2 sliced red chillies
- 8 sprigs fresh coriander
- 2 kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced

1. For the dumplings, put the minced chicken, bamboo shoots, ginger, chilli, coriander, fish sauce and cornflour into a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Mix it all together by hand (this is nice and squidgy) until it holds in a large ball. Rinse your hands, and make lots of teeny weeny dumplings, and set them to one side (I made massive ones and they were hard to eat!).
3. Put the stock, coconut milk, lime leaves and ginger slices in a large pan and bring to a simmer.
4. Reduce the heat to low, add the dumplings and simmer gently for five mins or so until just cooked through (they cook far more quickly than you expect).
5. Stir in the fish sauce, lime juice and sugar.
6. Add the pak choi and rice noodles, bring back to a simmer and remove from the heat.
7. To serve, ladle the soup into serving bowls, dividing the dumplings evenly.
8. Serve with the chillies, coriander leaves and lime leaves scattered on the top.

It says it serves four, which it probably would do with pudding. I made this panful for the two of us and we couldn't finish it - very, very filling. If anyone reading this makes it, do let me know how it turns out, and whether you made any changes.

Home grown

Inspired by Anne and her green thumb, I thought I'd update on the house and garden.

Ever since we moved into Rochester Square just over a year ago, our back pantry has been stuffed with clutter. Not just any clutter - boxes of J's psychology textbooks, bags of elderly computer equipment, camping gear and so on. Not much that we actually want to get rid of (apart from maybe a mouldy suitcase or two) but general stuff taking up three times more room than it should. And since we moved our bed from the front room to the box room (finally repainted and dry after the Great Floods of '09) that room's been filled with a collection of clutter and Anne's furniture.

After a nicely lazy Saturday (three football matches, a quick trip to Proud Gallery in Camden Market to see our friend Giles play guitar and two movies), J awoke on Sunday with a peculiar light in his eyes. "Come on," he said, poking me, "let's sort out the house." And once we got started, it became kind of addictive. We threw out so much crap from the pantry we had room to store some of the furniture in there. The front room is now a light and airy space, ready for me to turn into a home office, with plenty of room for J's guitars. Anne's loveseat is in front of the only big window in the house which gets enough light. It's become Mojo's new top spot and a lovely place to while away a few hours reading.

We also cleaned the place from top to bottom, which we'd neglected to do for a while. I'd been doing rooms piecemeal here and there but a proper spring (well, summer) clean was in order.

So, when we finished, slightly sore of back but light of heart, I wandered out into the garden for a cigarette, only to realise with the heat and rain of the last couple of weeks, the garden has gone completely bananas. The slugs/snails have eaten all my marigolds (little bastards), but thankfully left most everything else alone. I've got some copper tape for the tubs which should mean I can replant without fear of slug theft again, but I was faintly amazed by how completely they'd managed to decimate what had been fairly large plants - whilst the begonias in the pots next to them were completely untouched. Luckily, the slimy villans do not appear to have cottoned onto the raspberry and blueberry bushes and strawberry plants yet, so our al fresco lunch between room-tidyings came with a warm-from-the-sun, sweet, homegrown treat. The fuschia I was so worried about has actually budded and the clematis montana is about to take over the back fence.

So the next big task (next weekend) is to lop the overgrown buddliea and lilac bushes into shape and give the garden the sun it should have. I swear that lilac has grown four - six feet in the last 12 months. The buddleia seems to do the same in three; more to follow with some additional pictures.

And to finish with a recipe, given the nature of this blog: I made this lasagne this week, much to J's delight. It's rationed to once every couple of months as we can't help but eat the whole pan over a couple of days...

For the ragu sauce:

1 large onion
4 – 6 cloves of garlic
Splash olive oil
500g beef mince
Handful of dried mushrooms, rehydrated (keep the juice)
Large glass red wine
2 x tins chopped toms
Large squirt tomato puree
Splash balsamic vinegar
Glug Tabasco sauce
Glug Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp Marmite (special secret ingredient)
Pinch of sugar
Oregano (big pinch)
Basil (middling pinch)
Fennel (smallish pinch) (You could use a scant tbsp of Italian seasoning in place of the three herbs)
Salt & fresh ground black pepper

Chop onions and garlic and fry in the oil til softened, stirring well, in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the beef mince and stir until browned. Add the mushrooms, red wine and mushroom juice. Stir well and add herbs. Heat high until bubbling well. Add chopped toms and tomato puree and dash of balsamic, Tabasco, Marmite and Worcestershire sauce. Add pinch of sugar. Leave over a low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes. (You can add chopped bacon and/or chicken livers at the mushroom stage if liked).

For the b├ęchamel:

1 tbsp plain flour
c. 50g butter
2 pts milk
½ a nutmeg, grated
100g mature cheddar

Melt butter in the saucepan over a medium heat; add flour and stir like crazy til it bubbles a little (needs to cook off a bit). Add the milk bit by bit, stirring well, medium – high heat. It should thicken as you do it (if not, add 1 tsp cornflour mixed with 2 tbsps water at the end, but do wait a little while). Whisk it if it gets lumpy. Stir in nutmeg and S&P. Take off the heat and add the cheese – stir in til it melts.

Finishing off:

Lasagne sheets
100g cheddar, 75g parmesan

Now: assemble a large lasagne dish. Put half the meat sauce in the bottom. Put a layer of pasta sauce over the top. Pour a reasonably thick layer of cheese sauce over the sheets. Then put on the rest of the meat sauce carefully so it doesn’t mess up the cheese sauce layer below. Then another layer of pasta and another layer of cheese sauce. Sprinkle over both cheeses evenly over the top. Bake at gas mark 4 for about an hour until the cheese is browning on top and bubbling slightly.

Serve with a side salad (I use peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, red onion) dressed with homemade salad dressing (1 part balsamic, 2 pts red wine vinegar, 4 pts olive oil, pinch of herbs, pinch of sugar, clove of garlic whisked together).