A crazy week of reading

For some reason last Monday I felt the urge to read a book, something I’ve barely done at all since the last summer holidays.

It’s mostly Kindle these days. In bits and dabs I have finished the John Milton series I wrote about last summer and as I came to the end, Amazon started recommending other similar stuff. Every now and again there’s a special offer and I pay a couple of quid to download a whole series of something, then lose it somewhere on the Kindle as the user interface is not brilliant at reminding you of what is where and when.

So last Monday I started reading a really short novel that I had bought the year before in a sale by Damien Boyd, an author with no wikipedia page but a series of novels on Amazon. I started As the Crow Flies, a police procedural lead by DI Nick Dixon focusing on climbing and taking us down (or up, I suppose) some unusual paths. It had a well signposted denouement that turned out to be rather satisfying. That I finished in a night, so I moved on to the next one.

(I love a good series, me – and it’s nearly time for Sue Grafton’s penultimate novel, Y is for Yesterday)

Head in the Sand is the punning second in the series. Its title is literal not figurative, as the book opens with a severed head in a golf bunker and moves on from there. It was rather satisfyingly guessable and I was slightly ahead of the plot all the way through. I have a whole series ahead of me

Knowing I was away camping for the weekend, I stocked up on the next ones in a few series I am reading rather than rely too much on the Amazon sale spectaculars.

So over the weekend, I read Dust to Dust in the Dr Dunbar series – again, rather satisfyingly, I guessed a major plot twist in the first few pages, although the book has a rather spectacular McGuffin that kept us guessing to the end as well. There is tense drama in the middle and it certainly got my heart racing to turn pages.

I kept going in the Sara Paretsky / Warshawski series and read Hard Time with an extended women’s prison section as suggested by the title. I am still enjoying these books very much, but it is taking me years to read them all, and there are some very obvious plot manoeuvres that happen every time. Our protagonist always gets beaten half to death, usually more than once in a novel. If there is any mention of files, or the location of files, or whether the files are in her office or in her apartment, then you know there’s going to be a break-in and the files will be stolen. And this novel features at least the third time Warshawski ends up looking after a small child who has spectacularly fallen out with its parents…

I bought a few more P D James / Dalgliesh novels too, haven’t got around to those yet, because whilst I was spending money I don’t have on Amazon, the site kindly pointed out to me the very latest in the Janet Evanovich number series, so have been finishing that over the last few days. Turbo Twenty-three is still in hardback so the Kindle edition was three times the cost of anything else I bought.

Now if you’ll excuse me, this post has prompted me to go digging through my Kindle account and I have only just realised I pre-ordered the latest Mary Roach book, Grunt, it got downloaded last September, and I’ve not even looked at it!

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Bring back ma girls!

New additions for the hen house – Tallulah and Attila the Hen – who come to me from the British Hen Welfare Trust, who rehome chickens from battery farms when they come to the end of commercial viability.

BHWT are very well organised – you sign up online, phone them to have a quick chat, and book into pick up some hens.  I needed two – the minimum you can have – to add to my existing lone hen, Perry. There’s masses of information on their website and it’s well worth having a read through all of it at an early stage.

On the day, pickup was fast and competent. They gave a guideline arrival time by surname within a whole afternoon, had people on the road to tell me where to park and checked my pet carrier was suitable on my way in. They guided me to sign in, sent me around the corner, and I was back in my car with my new birds in… literally under two minutes.

Tallulah and Attila

The girls are not in best condition. They have a lot of feathers missing and nasty floppy pale combs on top of their head. They are supposed to be red and a lot tighter. They are a heat dissipation method for the birds, and they grow large in their cages where they are kept warm.

Tallulah and Attila

The feathers are either missing or sparse in large chunks – the birds look almost skeletal!

But apparently both the combs and the feathers will start to sort themselves out reasonably quickly and the girls will be almost normal within a few months.

I had great plans for segregating the coop and finding ways of keeping the new hens separate. I have a large 2m cubed walk in run, an Eglu Classic hen house and half of an Eglu run which is covered from rain.  My plan had been to fence off a portion of the run using Omlet fence/netting, and let the new birds live in there for a while, sleeping in the cat carrier they came home in.

This plan lasted about an hour. Perry, the existing chicken, at first was just curious at the new girls, but when I went back later, she had managed to tunnel in under the fence but get stuck inside the fenced off area. The new girls were stuck in a corner at the opposite end.  So I lifted the fence to let Perry out, secured the bottom of it more with tent pegs, and went away to give them a further bit of time.

There was lots of shouting from all sides, without any actual pecking…

Tallulah and Attila

Interestingly, in their minimally feathered state, you can see their tails move in sync with their throats when they are shouting and crowing.

The next hour I went back to find Perry roosting on a perch over the fenced off area – she’d managed to fly over the fence – and one of Tallulah or Attila had flown out of the fenced area to perch on a rod.  That was a surprise – I didn’t realise they had enough feathers to be able to fly.

Perry perching

At that point I had to give up. The fence was more of a danger than a help! I removed it for bedtime and let the girls get on the best they could.

When I went down this morning, the new girls had found the chicken house and were in there. Not sure if cowering or sleeping – but I am pretty certain that Perry was keeping them in there and chasing them back in if they tried to come out and feed.

So I’ve had another go at separating them. This time the new girls get the real chicken house and I’ve fenced off the end of the tunnel. Perry gets the entire run and can sleep where she pleases – on a perch or in the cat box. She hasn’t got much rainproofing though. We’ll see how this continues and it will be interesting to see where she lays.

And on that, this morning, the first morning with the new girls, there have been three eggs, so despite the upheaval and the trauma of a new flock, everyone is laying…

More photos: album on Flickr

Did anyone else read Nicholas Fisk?

Last night we went to see Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell. It was visually pretty but was definitely retreading the steps of sci fi movies we’ve seen before. Nothing in the plot was a surprise.

It put me in mind of young adult sci fi I read as a young adult in the late 1980s, and in particular the Nicholas Fisk novel A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair, the title, I know now, a quote from a Kipling poem. It’s a story of a family who have been resurrected from remains found in a graveyard, set in the future, but the family were killed in the second world war and their clones are also given a 1940s house and environment to live in. The story explores whether people from the past can be cloned to live in the future and there’s a clever twist in the end.

Twists in the end is a feature of Fisk’s writing and my strongest memory is of reading Grinny. It’s a fantastic YA novel and possibly I was reading it when I was too young, almost certainly pre-teen, having exhausted the library’s supply of Famous Five and Secret Seven. The story ramps up the tension throughout, with the children of a family realising their elderly aunt who lives with them is actually an alien, and then having to take matters into their own hands when unable to convince their parents there’s a problem. The ending really shocked me and upset me because I didn’t see it coming at all and it’s much more violent than earlier parts of the book. It ended up with a Serious Talk in the Middle of the Night with my parents about how to deal with books that are scary but also prepared the way for voracious teenage reading of Stephen King.

His Wikipedia page shows there were many more books than I realised – I think I only really ever read about five. Trillions is good and so is You Remember Me, the sequel to Grinny. I vaguely remember the title Antigrav  but nothing else about it.

Two puddings and a three course meal

A few things I have been cooking in recent weeks.

Poached pears in all sorts of ways – not a new thing in my repertoir (poached pear trifle | poached pear chocolate tart | poached pears) but not something I’ve made in a while.

Here’s some thoughts.  Red or white wine is fine – but different effects.  A fortnight ago I poached some pears ahead of time for a diner à deux and then accidentally left them on the kitchen counter for four days, so they were not useable. So I tried again with rosé and that was fab too.

With white wine, lemongrass and ginger are great flavours; with red you can throw the whole spice rack at it, especially cloves, star anise, cardamom and cinnamon.

You can also use white or dark sugar – you get a great hit from the caramellyness of muscovado.

Poach the pears whole, peeled and with their bottoms cut off so they stand up on the eventual plate, or more quickly quartered or halved, depending on where they are ending up. A whole pear is spectacular, but the most recent outing was intended as a topping for some leftover puff pastry, so they could be done in halves. Push a toothpick through them to test for readiness.

Poached pear tart

I’m a huge fan of vanilla mascarpone as an accompaniment, but this time, inspired by Jamie Oliver, I made a walnut cream by blitzing and combining equal quantities of walnuts and  mascarpone and sweetening slightly with icing sugar.

One final tip – the trad thing to do at the end is boil the poaching liquor down to make a syrup to serve. If you’re doing this, there’s no need to boil ALL of the poaching liquor down. Reserve maybe a cupful (for 2) or pint (for 4-6) and boil that down for a much quicker approach. It can be tricky to boil enough or too much, so remember you can drop a teaspoonful on a cold plate to see what the consistency will be when it has cooled.

Chocolate pots

I do love the Guardian’s “how to make the perfect…”series. I read Felicity Cloake’s treatise on chocolate pots in which she scampered through a range of different recipes, but in the end plumped for making something rather simpler.

My version still looked sensational, but was really ever so simple. The only tricky part is the time, but it barely takes an hour for each layer to set enough for the next. It would have looked even better if I could just learn to be a neater cook and not drip chocolate all down the outside of everything.

Layered chocolate ganache

I made the ramekins for my pudding club friends and the shot glasses for my friends at work, many of whom are dieting. Same ingredients.  A ganache is basically equal quantities ml for g of chocolate and double cream. Heat the cream, drop in the chocolate, stir until it melts, pour, refrigerate. Flavour if you wish with any strongly flavoured liquid, boozy or otherwise – cointreau, coffee, vanilla essence. Go for quality chocolate or a medium level supermarket own brand, but steer clear of the baking chocolate from the cake decorating aisle.

My five ramekin and four shot glasses were made from 150 grams each of dark, milk and white chocolate, unflavoured. My colleagues told me a shot glass was enough; I managed a shot glass AND a ramekin in one day; my friends ate half a pot and reserved the remainder for the following day.

Saturday’s dinner

The brief was “I’m feeling a little delicate so lots of fruit and veg” so I made…

Dinner 11/3/17

A hearty tomato and lentil soup that will also see me through the week – chopped carrots, onions, celery and garlic fired in olive oil, a spoonful of cumin and random dried herbs stirred through (I think it was oregano), veggie stock cubes and tinned and puréed tomatoes.

Whenever I now use my little stick blender I think of the ones in Nisbets the size of a pneumatic drill!

Mains were a salade niçoise of sorts

Dinner 11/3/17

A crunchy salad of lettuce, cuke, red pepper and black olives that match my fingernails, dressed in EVOO and sherry vinegar, with toppings of green beans, hard boiled egg and tuna mayonnaise.

For a dessert I had another go at Raymond Blanc’s pineapple three ways. I made this four years ago after it had just been on his TV programme. Then the recipe disappeared from the Beeb website. Now it is available again at Blanc’s own site. I don’t have the mandolin which makes the sliced / candied step too hard to do, and the roasting and basting every 15 minutes is a faff,  but still delicious.

The sorbet, however, is amazing – so simple and so delicious, and vaguely even healthy! I didn’t macerate, or measure sugar too carefully, just pineapple prepped and cored into the nutribullet with the juice of a lime and a slug of sugar, the resultant foam frozen in a Chinese takeaway box. Without the benefit of churning, this then needs to come out of the freezer half an hour before serving otherwise you will be chipping away at a pineapple iceberg.

Dinner 11/3/17

The roasted pineapple I served with a shot glass of the caramel basting liquid to mixed success. It set very hard and was quite hard but not impossible to eat. The butter separated out again as it cooled and was not nice. I had used the remainder citrus sugar to start the caramel and had worried the zest bits would burn, but they didn’t seem to…

Dinner 11/3/17

Christmas newsletter

A departure in format this year – I saw the instagram hashtag #2016bestnine and mulled it over in my head for a few weeks before trying to put one together. Whilst thinking about it, I completely forgot what the hashtag had been and lost examples, and in my muddled thinking it turned into a set of nine images that reflected the year rather than in any sense were the best parts of it, or the best images I made.

I changed phones midway through the year which meant getting all the images into one place was a pain. And the idea of doing this sort of editing and processing on my phone rather than my computer was certainly novel and a sign of the times.

Here’s the image and short accompanying text that would have gone out in my Christmas cards if I had been better organised, printed it at school, not had norovirus the minute we broke up…

Nine things from 2016 – Hogmanay in a youth hostel in the Highlands.

My mum died in February.  RIP.

I’ve got out a lot more and walked more in the Peak District.

I’ve been baking a lot more and have been playing with sourdough.

My amazing sister in law produced another nephew.

I was in Germany during the world cup on a school trip.

In August, I worked behind the bar at the Great British Beer Festival in London.

Fudge and Steve the cats continue to bring great joy.

December took me to Paris with school for the first time in a few years.

Next year – New year in Scotland again; Norwich in May, Lincoln and Madeira in August – see you there!

 

(Looking back it appears I neglected to blog 2015, so here it is.  Entertainingly, I naively thought all the paperwork for my divorce would be done and dusted in January. In December, I just finally received the notification of dissolution for my files along with a final bill from my solicitor.)

 

School trip, baby!

Just getting excited about impending trip and getting my gif head on.

This is exactly how it goes.

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Weekend cooking

 

I’m feeling a bit like I never have time to cook. Even now I’m thinking, gah, when did I last cook anything?!

So to remind myself, this weekend, I have caramelised over a kilo of onions in the slow cooker over about 24 hours, resetting the timer every now and again as my too smart for its own good slow cooker has a maximum of 10 hours in one go.

Slow cooker caramelised onions

Some of these will freeze, some of these will go in a jar in the fridge. There was also a quarter of a pint of delicious juices so I’m thinking French onion soup at some point too. This was just quickly slice a kilo of onions – food processor ftw – bung in slow cooker with a good slosh of EVOO and several knobs of butter, and a similarly large slosh of balsamic vinegar.  House smelled amazing for all the time it was cooking.

Oh yeah, I made nutribullet pancakes on Saturday morning for a lazy brunch too, nearly forgot.

Nutribullet banana loaf got made at some point.

For a quick and easy dinner on Saturday night, I stuffed some giant mushrooms with stilton for a delicious starter – I have been meaning to cook this for myself ever since Evil Brian fed them to me on Come Dine With Me and it was really delicious when he did and really delicious last night too. I also fried some pork loin steaks with onions, apples, and red pepper, simmering down with cider and adding crême fraîche and wholegrain mustard at the last minute.

Today I fished the onions out of the slow cooker but didn’t clean it at all – set it going straight again for chicken tikka from a delicious looking video on Facebook. Since I can’t share the video outside of facebook and I can’t guarantee I can find it again, here are the ingredients from the video. I have doubled everything because I have a large slow cooker and I also managed to have a bit of a freezer declutter this weekend too.

250gr chicken breast pieces
1 tbsp flour
2tsp salt
1tbsp garam masala
1tbsp turmeric
1 tbsp paprika
1 onion diced
4 cloves garlic
2 chillis
100gr chopped tomatoes
2tbsp tomato purée

Cook on high for 3 hours, add 200 grams  plain yoghurt after cooking (presumably then bring back up to heat…) and serve with rice.

I’ve doubled everything (not sure I’ve ever put 8 cloves of garlic in anything before!) and put in way more tomatoes, since if you’ve opened a tin, you might as well use them all.

All ingredients bar the garam masala were in Aldi but I had to make a special trip to Sainsburys for that as Aldi only had curry powder.

Slow cooker chicken tikka

 

While that was simmering, I knocked off a quick rocky road with popcorn, salted peanuts and mini marshmallows, set the dishwasher going for the third time this weekend, put the laundry out, spread two bags of bark around the chicken run, put last week’s laundry away…

And I’m still beating myself up about getting nothing done!