books

The Little Things - Camping Out

One of the things I really like about the long Easter holidays is the opportunity to do things that are a little bit out of the ordinary an I'm being reminded every day that it's not the expensive outings or the uber-planned excursions that seem to get the kids really excited. Oh no, it's the little things...

At the moment, in our house, son and step-daughter are totally obsessed with 'Swallows & Amazons'. They're listening to the audio-book, I'm reading it at bedtime and they're dreaming of a summer holiday in the Lake District where they can paddle about on the water, eating cake and avoiding the natives.

So, with this in mind, last night, they camped out.

 Even the hardiest of campers need a decent tent...

Even the hardiest of campers need a decent tent...

After putting the tent up themselves, they furnished it with sleeping bags, blankets, torches and those other essentials that make nights under canvas fun/bearable* (*delete as appropriate depending on your point of view here).

So, when bedtime came, they made their way out to the tent with much giggling and laughter. Warm socks, jumpers and pyjamas were visible as they crawled into their home-from-home and soon the light from their torches could bouncing around in the sides of the tent like a very small, very quiet rave.

Back inside, I was planning a little stealth raid of my own into enemy territory, under the cover of darkness, to deliver a little package to the adventurers...

 The midnight feast - an essential for campers everywhere...

The midnight feast - an essential for campers everywhere...

Juice and water, popcorn and biscuits, chocolate bars and sandwiches were all packed into a big bag and carried out to the campers along with hot water bottles and hot chocolate with marshmallows. A film was gifted to their iPad and the book that inspired it all, 'Swallows and Amazons' was tucked inside the bag and I crept down the garden to find them...

I was, however, totally let down by my comrade during the tent incursion - the dog galloped down the garden and launched herself into through the little gap left in the tent's door. Cue much more laughter as she tried to wiggle her way into the sleeping quarters.

So, as I say, it's the little things. The memory of two excited children peering into their midnight feast back, torches flashing in the dark to see what goodies have been delivered to them, smiling and laughing, is proof of that. It's also proof that the old childhood classics can still inspire and fire the imaginations of children now.

And it must have been fun because they're doing it again tonight...

Review - 'A Girl Called Jack'

As you might have gathered from the amount of food related content on this blog already, as you might have picked up from my comments about step-kids with food allergies and as I'm sure you can imagine - cooking for the five people in my house is not a simple or straightforward task. Most nights, we have the hectic rush to get food ready in that tiny window between the arrival home from school and the departure of people at various times to various evening activities. It's a juggling act for sure.

I guess we're slightly unusual in our house that we sit together pretty much every evening to eat together and the kitchen is definitely the hub of the house. I'm typing this now at the kitchen table and my step-daughter is sitting opposite me. I love that we do the family food thing but I am always on the look out for quick, healthy, relatively simple, child-friendly meals to cook on weeknights when time is short.

So, imagine my delight with 'A Girl Called Jack' from budget-conscious food blogger Jack Monroe. For those of you that don't know Jack's story, the short version is that whilst she was unemployed, she had a budget of just £10 a week to feed her and her son. Despite hitting rock bottom on a few occasions (one blog post recounting this is reprinted at the start of her book and it absolutely chilled me), Jack's recipes, full of 'value' range ingredients and bearing all the hallmarks of that particular type of ingenuity that is only born from having no other option, were posted on her blog and the snowball of interest started. Anyway, do read her blog, it's absolute genius.

Anyway, let's get on to the book itself...

 All the little page markers make me smile - so many recipes to try!

All the little page markers make me smile - so many recipes to try!

Firstly, for a great cookbook, £6.49 (today's price on Amazon - 5th April 2014) is a bargain. I have recently become very fed up with my monthly foodie mag and frankly, there are many many more recipes in here that I am likely to try than have caught my eye in any of this magazine's last five issues. So price - tick.

Another major plus is the short ingredient lists and the really great use of store-cupboard ingredients. And when I say store-cupboard, I mean the kind of stuff that everyone has in their house, not the kind of thing that food editors like to think that people have just laying around when they're trying to justify those ingredient lists that look more like a novella. I have been left with more jars of spices and herbs, more odd flavourings and more crazy ingredients than I care to mention after trying a recipe only to see the kids grimacing manfully as they struggle to eat something that hasn't properly rewarded me for the time I've spent cooking it. So practicality - tick.

The recipes themselves are very simple, a couple of short paragraphs of instruction at most and Jack provides little notes at the foot of each one to suggest alternative options and replacement ingredients. With that in mind, despite the fact the book cover says '100 recipes', with all these extra details, you're actually getting way more than that.

And it absolutely does what it says on the tin - these recipes are really budget conscious. We've been experimenting by 'Going Jack' when we shop and the food bill has taken a dramatic plunge, even without using value ingredients which would slash it even more. 

It'll come as no surprise I'm sure when I say I love this book and here are a few more reasons why...

  • the portion sizes are really generous and we've had leftovers from every recipe I've tried without skimping on the size of dinners. 
  • the leftovers have all, without exception so far, re-heated brilliantly.
  • the photography is great - the food looks deliciously real, not styled to the point of abstraction.
  • there's no need for hundreds of bits of equipment.
  • the actual cooking itself is simple so it's really easy for kids to follow the recipes too.
  • Jack is pretty flexible on the quantities of herbs and spices so it's easy to adjust things to suit the palates of your diners!
  • there's a great mix-and-match feel to the book with Jack suggesting side dishes to accompany main meals.
  • it feels real. It is the perfect antidote to those books that assume everyone has hours to spend shopping in chichi delis/preparing/cooking/cleaning/wafting around a dream kitchen in a silk kimono. I love cooking and I love food but I also have a life that needs living.
  • it's a perfect 'travel' cookbook - we took this book to The Hut and as you don't need loads of equipment/time/huge store of ingredients, it was excellent and we feasted royally the whole weekend.
  • it is a great family cookbook and my gang has tried things from this that I never thought they would.

As a little heads up, some of our favourites so far have been: peach & chickpea curry, mumma Jack's best ever chilli, lentil bolognese, sag aloo, roman pasta with mandarins, vegetable masala curry, spanish style chicken, mixed bean goulash and smoky red lentil burgers. And we've still got loads we all want to try - result!

Well played Jack. You've got this spot on.

Love - Agatha Christie

I have many loves. There are lots of things that make me smile, make me happy and get my little heart a-skipping with joy. The 'Oh, My Love!' posts here on this indulgent blog of mine are going to be me spreading a bit of my lurve around like proper butter on hot toast. You never know, there might be something that you fall for too and then I can feel smug that I've set you off on the path to a new romance. Don't worry, I'm not jealous. I won't hunt you down like an oddly bitter ex. I just hope you'll be happy together and that you'll think of me from time to time...

Anyway, my current oh-la-la love is Agatha Christie...

 The new additions to my Christie collection...

The new additions to my Christie collection...

Yes, I am quite aware that this might make me sound like a prematurely aged spinster but do you know what? I don't give a monkeys because I LOVE AGATHA. My collection has been expanding over the last few weeks as my book greed knows no bounds. I am rattling through them at quite a pace and my addiction must be fed. However, and happily for me, there seem to be some crazy fools in my local area who are donating their books to Oxfam where I then go in and hoover them up. Hurrah.

Anyway, let me tell you why I love Agatha Christie and why, if you've not tried one yet, it might be worth opening your mind to a bit of murder mystery...

Firstly, the stories are excellently and tightly written. There's no clunking about through the plot, there's no padding, it's all building up perfectly and the dialogue is fabulous. Of course, it does help that I have a particular penchant for this period but the text transports you to St Mary Mead, the Orient Express, a cruise ship on the Nile or any of the other delightfully described locations. Escapism at its very best.

Let's be honest, anyone someone wrote 66 novels and 14 plays clearly knew a thing or two and about her genre and her audience. These are books that were bought and devoured and enjoyed by millions for just being a good read. Forget the obscure literary prize winners and those books that you put down with a mildly confused and vaguely unsatisfied feeling, these are satisfying books that don't require hours of hard work yet reward you beyond measure. Don't be a literary snob and think such a popular author is a little too obvious to bother with. Let me tell you, she's popular for a damn good reason. 

Anyway, if you've not lost yourself in an Agatha (or if you're a lapsed Christie fan), try opening one this weekend. Whether you go for a Poirot, a Marple, a Tommy & Tuppence or a plain old mystery, you'll have a surprisingly lovely time reading about strangulations, family feuds and poison pen letters.

As for me, I'm in love so am off to hop into bed with Hercule Poirot and those poor people stuck on the Orient Express in a snow drift. Something tells me, at least one of them isn't long for this world...