Friday, 30 August 2013

Cookbook Junkie

Have I told you that I am a complete cookbook junkie? I have scores of them and, contrary to what you might be thinking, I do actually use them! I use them to cook from, sure, but I also use them for inspiration, for comfort, for armchair travel, for learning a whole new language.... They are multi-purpose and well-thumbed.

When I am tired, I loathe cooking; when I am not, it's a joy. I will happily trawl for hours, compiling a stack of new recipes and then set off ambitiously at the start of the week. I usually fade by Wednesday, but by then we've had a little variety, tried something new and if we've been lucky, found a new favourite.

Tell me, how do you keep from dying of boredom in the kitchen? Any favourite cookbooks I should know about? I'll post reviews of some of mine (with tried and tested recipes) as and when they take prominence in my kitchen.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013


Well, hello there! No posts last week as we escaped to the magnificent Loire Valley in France for a well-deserved break from urbanity, but now we are back and I have that "back to school" feeling. I am feeling excited about new projects, new possibilities and new adventures. However, my kids don't go back to school for another two weeks! Two weeks! And it is at this point in the school holidays that I need something light and funny and India Knight's Mutton did not disappoint. I read an interview with her online where she said her intention was for people to "honk" (her word!) with laughter when they read it and, reader, I did -- sometimes so hard that I had to stop reading while I regained my composure.

Her inner observations of life, family, friends, ageing and shopping are all so instantly recognisable that it's like sitting with a wildly gossipy old friend, but one that's just a few years ahead of you. It's chaotic and outrageous, but still believable and you kind of want to be her and then maybe you really don't!

If you haven't been introduced to India Knight's "family", then you might want to check out My Life on a Plate and Comfort and Joy first. If not, this one certainly stands on its own. India Knight is one of my all-time favourite writers and I hope this entices you to check her out. She also writes a weekly column for The Sunday Times if you want a little taster!

Friday, 16 August 2013

Fab Find: Santaverde

Santaverde is my top, new, sing-it-from-the-rooftops beauty discovery. This brand is amazing. The not-so-secret miracle ingredient here is pure, organic aloe vera juice, which they use instead of water. This little stroke of genius keeps the skin's moisture levels perfectly balanced, helps regenerate skin cells and is high in anti-ageing antioxidants, all of which adds up to very youthful-looking skin.

The gel is light and non-sticky, and a little goes a long way: a perfect base under any moisturizer or can be used on its own. The cream is also light, but super rich and goes on beautifully. It has an immediate softening effect that you can actually see, but the best thing...? It has a distinct (but very subtle) smell of key lime pie: my favourite! What a joy in the morning to be transported to a little cafe in sunny Florida where my grandmother and I had just declared a winner in our week-long search for the best key lime pie in Naples!

I started my happy odyssey through this line with the cleansing gel (not pictured), which contains apple juice as well as the aloe and I still use it every morning. It feels like a mask, but cleanses very gently. (I use mine in the shower.) I have used these three products now through all four seasons and can report that they work equally well in a hot, humid summer as they do in a grim and protracted winter. They really are worth singing from the rooftops about!

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Bucolic Plague

Confession: I long to be a farmer! This is only in theory, of course. I do understand that in actuality I would hate being a farmer. I do not like mud or being cold or getting up early. My heart condition would not allow for the hard physical labour of the job, and I know absolutely nothing about crops or livestock. And, yet.... The idea of it all appeals to me on such a fundamental level: being in tune with nature, being self-sufficient, carrying on age-old traditions, working with animals and teaching my children important skills and crafts that are being lost as each generations passes. 

I know I will probably never follow this particular dream, so I was as happy as a pig in the proverbial to discover The Bucolic Plague by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. He, and his partner (now husband) Brent, have done it for me...and he was kind enough to record the whole thing for me to read about. Thanks, Josh!

Josh writes in an extremely engaging voice and frequently made me laugh out loud, but it is also a very earnest book and that's really why I loved it so much. It is the story of two Manhattanites who decide to buy a mansion and accompanying farm in upstate New York in order to spend more time in nature and "doing something real", but reality, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a whole lot harder than they expected, especially when the 2008 financial crash hits and they both lose their jobs.

Josh, the author, was born and raised on a farm in Wisconsin, spent several years in New York city as a drag queen and then ended up in a "respectable" job in advertising. His self-stated skill is "making things sparkle". He is inspired by Oprah. His partner, Brent, is "Dr. Brent" from The Martha Stewart Show and, with Martha as his inspiration, he struggles with perfectionism. Their trials and tribulations as they try to turn their beloved mansion into a profitable business that would allow them to leave the city and "live the dream" full-time are by turns hilarious and touching.

My favourite thing about Josh and Brent, though, is not only what they managed to achieve (which is truly awe-inspiring), but that they managed to involve what sounds like the entire town of Sharon Springs in their venture. For all things "bucolic", have a look at their website to see what they've been up to since the book was published.

They really have played a huge role in resurrecting their beautiful, historic village, giving local artisans and producers a forum for their wares at The Beekman 1802 Mercantile, as well as helping to bring back the tourist trade that first put Sharon Springs on the map back in the 19th century when it was a fashionable spa town for wealthy New Yorkers like the Vanderbilts, who came to "take the waters".

If you are anything like me, then reading about The Beekman Boys will spur you on to figure out how to make your dreams more of a reality -- even if your dream doesn't involve a herd of goats!

Monday, 12 August 2013

Everything is Okay

Some days it feels like everything is very much not okay. Life feels precarious, untenable, beyond our abilities, but we know we have to keep going so how do we do it? Where do we look for inspiration, for faith in a positive outcome, for the next chink letting in light? My first instinct is always to reach out, and this is often an excellent starting point -- it reminds me that I have a circle of people holding my safety net should I fall and that reassures me and lets me take the next step -- the deeper, more life-changing one.

For that one, I have learned -- finally -- to go within. We are all our own best friend and yet we give ourselves very short shrift on this front. I suspect this is because we are never taught to take our own counsel. We are told to ask the experts, uncover the facts, put together a rational study of pros and cons, but this fails to take into account that we are the experts on ourselves, "facts" can be subjective and one good "pro" can outweigh a whole truckload of "cons".

The world is also a rather noisy place: our heads are full to the brim with millions of pieces of information and there is no silence in which to hear our own little voice -- the one that really matters, the one that has our best interests at heart. And sometimes we do hear its guidance and choose to disregard it anyway. We explain it away as selfish or ask "what do I know?". Well, rather a lot, actually, and being "selfish" is usually nothing of the kind. An act of kindness to yourself will go a long way in translating its benefits to others. Why does no one tell us this? I don't have the answer and I have finally found the confidence to stop asking the question.

So, next time you are at a crossroads or have an important decision to make or, indeed, just feel out of sync with yourself, may I suggest that you simply be quiet? Do whatever it is you do to still the incessant chatter in your head (walk, swim, meditate, knit, jog, lie on your back and watch the clouds...) and listen -- and then trust what you hear. Why would you steer yourself wrong?

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Burt's Bees: Almond & Milk Hand Cream

I quit drinking alcohol many years ago. Most of the time I do not miss it, but every now and again I get a craving for a sweet after-dinner drink, like a vin santo, a sloe gin or perhaps an amaretto. My health challenge currently rules out both alcohol and caffeine, making coffee off limits as well, but I read somewhere that the pathway to the brain from the nose and the mouth is the same, so that both of these cravings can be satisfied merely by smelling the drinks (those of someone you know, please!) instead of actually drinking them. I am pleased to tell you that I have put this theory to the test quite successfully with both beverages, and can highly recommend it if you are trying to wean yourself off either one or the other.

Another way to get your fix is by simply opening a pot of Burt's Bees Almond & Milk Hand Cream. This stuff smells just like amaretto in a pot and hits you squarely the minute you open the lid. I picked one up last week while my daughters and I were cruising the product aisles at Boots: they for pretty much anything I was willing to pay for; me for something to tackle my gnarly summer heels. Being well into August now, my feet have been in flip-flops for almost two months and are in need of some serious repair work. I have tried many creams and balms on my heels over the years, but up until now had only found one that really worked. However, Elizabeth Arden Eight-Hour Cream is exceptionally expensive to use on your feet so I can't recommend that in good faith unless it is an emergency...only you can gauge the severity of the situation!

Instead get yourself a pot of this. It is thick and greasy, no good at all as a hand cream, but just the thing for Hobbit-like heels. I slathered it on, popped on some socks and drifted happily off to sleep with the sense that I had had a marvellous amaretto-fuelled evening without any ill effects. When I woke up my feet were amazingly soft and the gentle scent of almonds still hung in the air. It took three nights and some daytime sloughing with one of those cheese-grater-like heel tools, but my heels are, thankfully, back to normal. Retailing at £9.99, this rich, dense cream is very economical as it will last you a good long while. If you are a fan of marzipan or amaretti biscuits (and have scary summer-heel issues) then this is the cream for you.... and your feet!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Kitchen Tip: Ginger

I can't remember where I read about this tip, but it is one that I had to pass on for its sheer simplicity and brilliance! When you buy a piece of ginger, peel it and pop it in a Ziploc bag in the freezer. It's so much easier to grate (or chop) ginger when it's frozen and you don't waste a thing this way.

Monday, 5 August 2013

The Enchanted April

Right now, part of my healing process is to stay happy and keep my spirits high, always looking for the best in each day. This can be irritatingly Pollyanna-ish, I realize, but is actually really essential for my wellbeing, so I couldn't have stumbled across a better book to re-visit than The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim.

The main character, Lotty, reminded me (rather annoyingly!) of myself: optimistic, seeing the joy in everything and wanting to infect everyone else with it too... but that is precisely what happens. It is the story of four women, unhappy with their everyday lives in London, who travel to Italy to spend a month at San Salvatore, a castle on the shores of the Mediterranean. As the Telegraph review said, "At one level, an escapist fantasy, at another, a parable about the liberation of the spirit." I can't think of a better combination for a "summer read"!

It is, though, perhaps the language I appreciate most about this book. It is rich and witty in a dry way, but with no meanness to it. Lotty's observations are sharp and unusually modern for her day, making the novel seem much less dated than any book written in 1922 has any right to. There are many phrases that made me laugh out loud and also many passages that were so wise that I wanted to write them out so as to have a record of them for myself to keep... and follow!

P.S. This has also been made into a wonderful movie with a perfectly-cast cast. If you are tempted (which you should be!), can I implore you to read the book first? It really is worth your while. I promise!

Friday, 2 August 2013

Eating Seasonably: August

Here we are at the beginning of August with a whole new bounty to eat. We are loving eating seasonably in our household, and it has made us focus more on how, as well as what, we eat. We have been checking our list and thinking about how we can incorporate each of the foods in new and tasty ways.

So, what's on our hit list for August? Well, according to the Eat Seasonably calendar, the top three for August are plums, raspberries and cos lettuce. We are also going to make sure we include blueberries, celery, more cucumbers, bell peppers, spinach and sweetcorn. I'll report back at the end of the month and let you know how we got on.

But how did we do in July...? Not too bad, I think! We tried everything on our list except beetroot. I love beetroot, but can't eat it right now because of my health, which was a-okay with the girls as they both loathe it! Otherwise, we sampled all kinds of melons and berries and ate our way through mountains of cherries. As for greens, peas were easy as we eat those with almost every meal anyway; courgettes were harder but I sneaked them into a chicken dish with creme fraiche and sun-dried tomato pesto and they went down very nicely indeed.

And our real coup? Well, this year we grew our own lettuce and cucumbers (both regular ones and mini ones). I have to say, I was as excited as the kids were heading out to the terrace with my little basket to pick fresh veggies! Hopefully, by next month our potatoes and carrots will also be ready to pick. Watch this space...!