Friday, 16 August 2013

Living The Wild Life

Hello, webby mates.
I am an urban person; a true city dweller. I don't even drive a car. I like all the cultural advantages of living in a city and don't hanker for wide open spaces. Lots of people want to retire to the country; I want to retire to a small flat in London where I can spend my days in the great museums and libraries for free.

My kids are also fairly urban. They aren't remotely sporty, prefer books to forests and would stay inside every minute glued to a screen of some sort if I let them. However, the more time they spend indoors the more ratty and squabbly they get. It can't be good for them. It certainly isn't good for me.

We are lucky enough to have a large garden, and on sunny days the kids play on the trampoline, the swing, and have complicated Nerf Dart battles with their friends. We strong-arm them into helping with the garden a little from time to time and they do love a campfire. But, being the urbanite I am, I'd rather die than take them camping and I'm not terribly proactive about muddy days out.

I thought I could do better. I heard about the National Trust's challenge to kids called 50 Things To Do Before You're 11 3/4. Some things are as simple as running in the rain while others are as hard as learning to ride a horse or canoeing down a river. The National Trust is challenging children to do 25 of the 50 during the summer holidays. We decided to have a go at upping our personal tallies.

The first day we went to Lotherton Hall just outside of Leeds to take advantage of the activities the city council and National Trust were jointly providing. The kids did some orienteering with the compasses available, they baked flat breads and toasted marshmallows on a campfire, made masks based on animal camouflage pattern, pinched apples from the orchard (sorry, Lotherton!) and tasted them (a bit sour... I did warn them. Our own apples will be ready soon) and made and flew kites. And, of course, ran around a lot enjoying themselves.

Shortly afterwards our lovely city council brought its free festival for young people to the park down the road. Stroking the Burmese Python that was visiting from the Exotic Pet Rescue Centre definitely ticked of the "hold a scary creature" challenge! They scrambled over obstacle courses It was a fantastic day for the kids - even my I-Hate-Exercise teen managed to find some fun - a good book in the mobile library and meeting the exotic animals.

My lovely 11 year old then went away with the Scouts for a week, camping near Bristol. His outdoor activity tally couldn't get much higher, and judging by the photos they've posted on Twitter, he couldn't be enjoying himself more if he tried.He may need cleaning with a power hose when he gets back, though.

We headed to Bolton Abbey for a day with the other two. They tried skimming stones - Mark is very good, 14yo is pretty good, Miss B is fairly hopeless but trying, and I am lucky not to murder ducks with my disastrous attempts. 

The big lad got to the very top of a huge old oak tree and discovered it was hollow. Miss B got about 6 feet up before deciding she'd had enough, but both were impressed to discover they could fit inside a hollow in a wide branch and disappear from view.

Playing in the river caused its own excitements. Eventually - inevitably - one of them fell in. I was only surprised it was Miss B, as the big lad had been leaping from stone to stone in a most precarious fashion. However, being soaking wet only added to her merriment, and she walked back to the car park in a state of undress that is part of summer days, kids and adventure.

Having wondered what the point of the day out was when we sprung it on him, the big lad found himself having a fantastic time. Climbing, sliding, swinging on tree swings, rolling down hills with his little sister to 'show her how it's done,' rearranging rocks in the river with her to dam a small area, and generally forgetting he officially Wasn't Keen On That Sort Of Thing.  The pair of them got on brilliantly and we all had a wonderful, if exhausting, day.

Miss B liked ticking things off her 50 Things list so we did some more when her friend came to visit. We made daisy chains, found snails to race, hunted for caterpillars, identified butterflies and got soaked in a brief rain storm.

Despite my comfort zone as a parent being to take the kids to cool events and visit new cities, exhibitions and other town-based activities; despite their inclination to play online games all day they their pals (older ones) and watch telly or bounce on the trampoline with her mates (youngest); we have had some wonderful days getting mucky and tired outside. The kids were noticeably more engaged and cooperative. Mark and I felt better for a day outside but away from the garden chores. All of us just had more fun together. Plus, of course, there are always ice creams.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Turning Japanese

I'm still in the lucky position of having great piles of veg ready for eating. The summer sprouting broccoli is up, green and yellow courgettes are everywhere, the red onions and the carrots are all reaching decent sizes

A few of the courgettes had graduated to significantly less appealing marrows. It seems size isn't everything. However, the hens regard marrows as a high treat, so they made short work of the whoppers. The smaller and more tender fruits are much more my thing.

Mark and I had totally failed to do the supermarket shopping this week. We've been popping to the smaller shop at the end of the road for milk and bread and I've been using up the contents of the cupboard and freezer to cobble together meals. The garden has been a great help with this. However, I was getting a bit bored and wanted something new to eat.

I'd read about making vegetable tempura a lot but I've never tried it.  For a start I know nothing about Japanese food aside from having noodles at Wagamama. And for another thing, it looks a bit scary. It's the deep frying. I don't deep fry anything. At all. I like fish and chips from the chippy but that's the full extent of my deep fried dabbling. Partly, all that oil seems pretty wasteful, partly I'm scared it will spatter terribly and burn me, and partly the episode in the first series of Spooks that Mark told me about - I hadn't even watched it - horrified me and I think of it every time I hear the sizzle of fat.

However, that is wussy and daft. It's not wasteful if the veg going in it is free, as long as I am careful and also don't get water near the oil there's no reason it would spit and burn me, and ... well, I couldn't think of anything to banish the Spooks thing but I pushed on regardless.

I picked carrots, broccoli, courgettes and grabbed an onion that had been drying. I washed them all thoroughly to get rid of any insects; I know eating bugs is bandied about in the Guardian as a good form of protein in an overpopulated world but I'm not going for it just now, ta.
I sliced the small courgettes and carrot into narrow lengths, the larger courgette and the onion into disks and left the broccoli florets as they were.

Excuse the rubbish photography - frying dinner and taking quick photos with my phone at the same time mean one or the other will be badly executed. I chose good frying and poor pics as the wise balance.

Anyway, I read a number of tempura recipes that are scattered across my cook books. They all called for sparkling water or, in one case, beer. I don't know about you, my lovely webby mates, but if I am cobbling together a dinner because i haven't done the shopping, sparkling water is not something I will have to hand.  In fact, other than when making a drink with my elderflower cordial that calls for some soda water, my 'water' options are only ever of the tap or tonic varieties, and the latter is only since I discovered how nice a gin and tonic is.

So clearly sparkling water was out of the question.  Then again, tempura is a traditional Japanese dish and I doubt they had sparkling water back in the 1500s. The thing seems to be to keep the batter as light as possible, and both fizzy water and cold water are supposed to help this. But other things help a batter remain light, and they didn't involve a trip to the shops. I went for a 50/50 split of corn flour (cornstarch) and plain flour to achieve that. (I am the sort of person who has corn flour in her cupboards) I added an egg yolk, which 3 of my 4 recipes advised, and ice cold water.  In retrospect popping a couple of ice cubes in the batter would have helped keep it cold for longer as I fried the veg in shifts.  Oh, and I seasoned the batter with salt.
I mixed enough to get it to come together and added enough cold water that the batter would coat my finger when I dipped it in, but only thinly. I dipped and fried the veg a few at a time, for about a minute.
 When I lifted the cooked vegetables out of the cooking oil I placed them on a tray lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil.  I actually popped the first few in a lined bowl but that made them go a bit soggy as the heat from each piece sort of steamed the batter of its neighbours. 

I had intended to make a dipping sauce based on soy sauce. Unfortunately, as I rooted about for the sauce I noticed its expiry date was 3 years ago. In the end I just sprinkled a little salt over the top and we tucked straight in. They were just LOVELY. My 11yo, who is usually game for anything, looked at them in disgust. But once he tried a piece it was hard to stop him from scoffing the lot. 

Next time I will make a sauce first - something with a vinegar and chilli kick, I think.  I'd keep the batter cold by either adding ice cubes or having it in my metal mixing bowl sitting inside a bigger bowl lined with ice. I would make the batter slightly thicker, but only slightly. I sloshed a tad more water in than I meant to when I was thinning it down the first time. And I would definitely try it with some prawns or strips of fish as well as the lovely veg if I had any in the kitchen.

Here's my current version of a tempura recipe:
125g corn flour
125g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 large egg yolk 
Very cold water (sparkling if you are feeling all fancy)

Sift the corn flour and plain flour together. add the salt and egg yolk. Stir in just enough water to make a thin batter - I found somewhere around the 1/2 cup/ 125ml level was pretty close. It doesn't matter if the batter is a little lumpy. It makes nice crispy bits on the food that way.
Dip small pieces of vegetables in the batter. Deep fry in hot vegetable oil for a minute or so. Eat while they are still hot.

Do you know what? Even the Spooks thing won't stop me from making this again
J xx

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Dealing with August's overabundance

At the start of April my garden looked like this -
This is not normal for Yorkshire. Not normal AT ALL. There had been a brief warm spell in March that got my hopes up but then cold, wet, horrid weather stopped anything growing for months. By the end of April I'd done all the prep work for my vegetable garden but nothing had started growing. My seeds remained resolutely unsprouty. It started to look like it was going to be another duff year for growing food.
I should have had more faith.  Once the ground warmed up everything took off like a rocket. This is what my garden looks like today:
That is different washing on the line, by the way. In case you were thinking I left stuff out for 4 months at a time. I may be slack, but I'm not quite that slack. 

The veg have all gone a little mental. I have so many green beans eating them was starting to feel like homework. The Italian kale has more leaves than we - and the caterpillars - can possible eat. The lettuce are becoming small shrubs, the nasturtiums are threatening to cover the lawn and the courgette and squash plants have colonised two paths and are making a bid for the strawberry patch. It's ace but it's also a bit too much.

I am a big fan of seasonality up to the point that the glut of produce is making me feel guilty. I don't want to waste any of the lovely fresh veg but I also don't want to force feed the family on greens to the point of a revolt.  So I thought about preparing and freezing some of the harvest.

I started with French beans. To keep them in the best possible condition for future use I needed to freeze them. However, the enzymes in veg that cause rot and decay remain active when frozen unless they've been killed off by blanching the vegetables, so you can't just wash them and bung them in freezer bags. Blanching means briefly boiling them then plunging then into ice cold water to stop the residual heat from cooking the veg further. It's as easy as that.

I had no ice as I'd used it all making iced coffee last week, so I stuck a huge bowl of water in my chest freezer while I went to pick the beans.

Then I took a colander out with me and picked as many as I could fit in it. I threw the manky and dried-out -looking beans to the chickens to fight over and kept all the nice ones. I washed them thoroughly in a sink of salty water to remove any small beasties as well as traces of dirt and leaves.
We like our beans pretty long, so after I'd trimmed the ends I just cut the most oversized ones in half and left the rest. If you prefer your beans cut into short pieces, now's the time.
I brought a massive stock pot of water to the boil, tipped the beans in and put the lid on. They were there for 3 minutes. A side benefit of blanching is that it makes the colours all lovely and intense. That's why the beans in photos below have a much deeper green than the ones above.

Then I drained them and plopped them in that big bowl of water I'd had sitting in the freezer. The rule of thumb is to leave them in the cold water for as long as you've had them in the hot.
I dried them on a clean tea towel and spread them on a tray to freeze. 
After an hour, I tipped the partly frozen beans into a ziplock bag. I couldn't resist weighing my beans - look, nearly a kilo! 

To prevent freezer burn it's best to get as much air out as you can, so I sealed the bag up except for enough space for a straw, and I sucked out all the air I could. Then I sealed that last corner quickly and popped the bag back in the freezer. 
 Ta da! Lots of lovely green beans ready for us whenever we fancy. The time between picking them and freezing them was about 20 minutes, so they keep all the lovely fresh vitamins and sweetness. And no kids throwing strops about having French beans for the third night in a row. Well, not until next week, when the next lot of beans are ready for picking.

Begin at the Beginning

I love Caitlin-pronounced-Catlin Moran. 

Hello, webby world!

I'm Jay. I live in the lovely city of Leeds in West Yorkshire, England, with my partner, our 3 kids and our many animals.

To the left is a photo of me meeting Caitlin Moran, who would TOTALLY be my best mate if we actually knew one another irl. As would Kathleen Turner.

For those people who like the census type details, I'm 44, white, of mixed heritage (well, born in the UK, raised in Canada and chose Yorkshire as my permanent home by age 22. Basically I have a wonky accent and an uncharacteristic love of hockey for a Yorkshirewoman). My partner Mark and I have been together since 6th form, which is either sweet and romantic or exhibits a staggering lack of imagination, depending on your perspective. 

When I was young I  meant to be CEO of a major company, travelling the world Business Class and writing novels in my spare time. And obviously being utterly fabulous at everything. Then I grew up. And, in a move that would have 16 year old me wetting herself laughing, I am drifting into being a kind of urban Jill Archer.
 I blame becoming a mother. It was when I was pregnant with our first baby that I decided 'Mums know how to bake so I'd better learn." Now I bake for a living.

Have a gingerbread man. Go on, I insist. 
That was just the start. There were all sorts of other things I thought clumsy people like me couldn't possibly do. I can't even drive a car or touch type,I realised I was not trying lots of things because I'd assumed I'd be terrible at them. Who wants to live like that? So I changed my mindset and I have a go at pretty much anything. Almost despite myself I've learnt to love sewing, knitting, growing fruit and veg, making preserves and keeping chickens.

I'm blogging my attempts - both successes and failures  - to learn new skills in all sorts of aspects of my life. 

Sometimes I'll run through how to do stuff I've got the hang of already; sharing skills is one of my favourite things. I've learnt from friends, neighbours, other bloggers and books and I love being part of the cycle of shared knowledge. 
Other times I'll photograph and blog new things I'm trying to work out how to do. This may occasionally go a bit wrong. Think about it this way - if I know how to do it I'll share it with you and if I don't, I'll tell you what went wrong so you can avoid the same mistakes.

I fail so you don't have to.

Hmm, perhaps not the best recommendation in the world.

Jay x