Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Poetry Corner: The Snow.

Down, down, down,
Fell the snow,
To the ground.
Crunch, crackle, crunch,
It softly did munch;
Silky and glittery,
In the cold, cold evening.

I looked out of my room window,
I could see the snow,
It looked like a big crystal,
But of course,
I did know,
That it was the snow.

- Catherine, Age 7

Sadly, my teacher pointed out that this task was to write a poem about ice. I had to start again!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Bedding Down for Winter

Maybe it's the snow, maybe it's the dark nights, mabye I'm just tired and impatient for more than two days off in a row (oh, had I only known how lucky I was while I was a student!), but it's starting to feel a little bit too close to Christmas around here.

It's been snowing since Friday evening - we stood and watched the now familiar wonder of falling snow for ages; standing in the dark with our noses pressed to the windows. I still get that excited buzz in my tummy at the sight of snowfall; it just turns into an inconvenience much quicker these days.

For whatever reason, this weekend I allowed myself to start preparing for Christmas. To start stewing vine fruits, to spend hours sitting and knitting, to design the Christmas cards and to allow myself to enjoy the excited, impatient buzz of the Advent countdown.

It feels about time to start hibernating a little. With the exception of a snowy morning run on Saturday and a bustling burst of fresh air in the city on Sunday afternoon, I've very much been hiding away in a cardigan with a large mug of tea, stirring mincemeat and creating wooly gifts. We've eaten pie, stayed in bed for hours with hot drinks, and forgotten about the outside tasks that would only turn our hands red raw and leave us desperate for more pie, more tea and more duvet hide-outs.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Shopping Cynicism

1. Black Friday is...well...no idea...something related to shopping, whichsounds totally abysmal!

2. Christmas shopping this year will include buying wool for knitting projects and cardboard for my cards. My gift giving gets tighter every year, and every year I become less inspired - may the panic commence!

3. Holiday shopping makes me tired, angry and desperate. Does anyone actually enjoy it?!

4. This year my Christmas list will include a new bike helmet and a draughts board!

5. Bargain hunter or full price shopper? Well I love a bargain, but I hate cheap stuff; I'd rather pay £50 for a good quality and ethical shirt than £5 for a see-through one made by a three-year old child.

6. The best thing about shopping is getting home and having a cup of tea. The worst thing is the steady accumulation of things in bags as the attachment to hard-earned cash weakens.

7. Online shopper or in-person shopper? I really try to buy in person; really I do. But the nature of my tastes means this is super hard; high street shops don't adhere to my music tastes, and there is only one ethically-orientated shop in York. I love sifting through the vintage shops in York, though :-)

Take part with Lauren - have a great Friiday!


Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Thing Is...

The thing is that I was about to explode with exhaustion. I was about to say 'hey, I need a break, I'm going to take a break' and unplug myself for a while. I was going to allow myself to be condemned to counting the days until I'm free of this incessant thing that, I've since realized, is actually just real life.

Then I took a walk.

I got off the train too early (a whole town too early) and I walked and walked. The morning frost was resting on top of the world, the air was still, passers-by greeted me and small countryside animals hurried away as I approached. It was wonderful, but what was more wonderful was the sense of freedom welling up inside of me. Time is always ours to choose: whether we walk or stay on a painfully slow train, whether we choose to enjoy time or choose to wish it away.

From now on, I choose my time. I choose to enjoy my job while I'm there, and to enjoy my time when I'm not there. To put care into preparing my packed lunches and my clothes for the following day. To make time for the things I love, even if it means breaking from my steadfast routine.

Today I got a different train. I got off two towns early and walked and walked. No headphones, only thoughts. I will leave my thoughts on headphones for another, less serene, day; for now I am celebrating the simple wonder that is thought.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Against the Grey

Suddenly all colour seems to have been drained from the world. While running beside the racecourse today I was stunned by the colourless world before me - the bleakness was beautiful but simply nondescript.

Though there's something special about the bleak wintery world (it's why I love the Yorlshire Moors so much, it's seeped in something that can only be described as bleak), this time of year does make colour seem so much more vibrant when you happen across it. As I found in my kitchen this evening - surprising splashes of colour everywhere I turn!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Cosy Veggie Shepherd's Pie for Cold Saturdays

I love spending hours cooking on Saturday afternoons, when I have all the time in the world to experiment, taste, stir, grate, throw out and start again. Some meals just beg a little attention and care, and attention and care takes time. When you've got a couple of hours spare to indulge in some cooking after a long day cycling in the freezing cold (or doing anything in the freezing cold, for that matter), Shepherd's Pie is a really good way to use that time. It's warming, homely, full of protein, and goes really well with a pile of steamed veggies - everything one might require in these cold months!

While out hiking or cycling, Daniel and I often discuss what we might cook when we get home, when we're warm, clean and exhausted and fully satisfied that we've had a day well-spent. For us, that apres-adventure meal is all part of the adventure; alongside the hot bath and the big cup of tea, the food we choose to nourish ourselves with at the end of the day is just as important as the breakfast, the water, the flapjacks and the bananas!

On Saturday, this Shepherd's Pie was discussed in detail. From the vegetables to the drink that would accompany it, the prospect of this meal is what powered us up the hills. I've spent years trying to perfect a veggie version of this classic, and I think, just at the crucial moment, I may have succeeded!

My Special Sheep-less Shepherd's Pie

Serves 4 (or, dare I admit it, two - in times of serious appetite)

For the filling
2 onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 people's worth of dried TVP mince
2 small sweet potatoes, peeled and grated
1 cup (or thereabouts) of peas
About 1 litre of stock
Salt and pepper
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1 tsp Marmite
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried sage
2 tbsp cornflour

And for the topping
3 large baking potatoes, peeled and chopped into chunks
2 tsp butter
Glug of milk
Pinch of salt
Cheddar cheese, grated

1. Bring the potatoes to the boil in a large saucepan with a good pinch of salt. Leave to simmer for 30-40 minutes.
2. Fry the onions in olive oil until crisp. Add the garlic, peas, sweet potato and cinnamon and cook for 5 minutes.
3. Add the TVP mince and the stock (the stock should cover the mince, so it looks sort of watery and gross - that's ok!). Season with salt and pepper, sage and rosemary, then add the mustard and the Marmite. Give it a good stir and get it bubbling. Turn the heat down and simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Wait 30 minutes - a useful space of time in which to make an amazing sticky date pudding, wash up or read a chapter of your book. Also remember to heat the oven to 200C in this time.
4. Add the cornflour to the mince and stir well. After about 5 minutes this should magically thinken to a perfect consistency. Pour the mince into a large heatproof dish. It needs to cool a little if the potato is to sit happily on top, so now is a good time to mash your taties!
5. Drain the potatoes, add butter and milk and smash them into fluffy buttery joy!
6. Sit blobs of potato on top of the mince, then press down gently with a fork. It doesn't matter if some mince peeps through, imperfections make these things more homely anyway (or so I tell myself!)
7. Grate cheddar on top, then bake in the oven for 20 minutes until there are crunchy peaks on the potato and the mince is bubbling all over the oven floor...

Monday, 15 November 2010

Big Skies Bike Ride

A day out cycling in the chilly Yorkshire climes probably isn't the best remedy for a chest infection, but the blue skies on Saturday morning told me otherwise.

Following a route from our 'Big Skies Bike Rides' booklet we headed into the East Riding, over muddy fields and bumpy ground, along never-ending country roads and through bustling market towns.

The route took us into the Yorkshire Wolds, which we had explored previously on our ride out to Filey. I thought I knew what was in store; rolling hills, quaint villages, thigh-burning ups and stomach-churning downs, but actually this was like no place I ever imaged could exist on our doorstep. Almost like the moon; hills rising above hills, pale brown and dry from the new frost. Shaggy cows grazed on the hillsides, and the occasional passing car had trouble squeezing past us on the narrow lanes. Bleak like the Moors, but with a tinge of quaint chocolate box charm, I'm eager to explore more of this unusual area.

My lungs were choking angrily at what I was putting them through, but my soul was singing with the freedom and the space. There was one of those 'where on earth will I find energy to get home?' moments, but a hurried peanut butter toastie on a roadside packed in enough fuel to push me back. We were exhausted, without really understanding why. Arriving home we just sat and ate and ate for about an hour; maybe the cold weather brings an added physical challenge to these things?

Either way, sugary pudding and French cinema fixed us up nicely!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

What I've Been Wishing For!

The day has finally come!

Exhausted from a week of early mornings and illness, followed by a gruelling Saturday bike ride, this is a Sunday for rest.

Slow breakfasts with a light debate on vegetarianism (makes a nice change from religion!).

Cosy in my PJs, sipping hot, sweet coffee and doing not-a lot.

Reading my book, so neglected during the week.

Catching up on knitting projects to meet the Christmas deadline.

Hot melted cheese, ketchup, baked beans, too much tea.

Soup - warming parsnip and ginger to fizzle out the winter chills.

Yes, today I am happy to sit back and enjoy a slow pace.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Why I Love Nigella

"There are very few certain pleasures in life, but this is surely one of them" - Nigella Lawson

I don't know why, but somehow I feel a little embarrassed to reveal my love for Nigella. Like many of her competitors, it seems sort of unfashionable or naive to express any real delight towards her. Yet everyone seems to own a copy of Domestic Goddess, and everyone knows about her suspiciously young and mismatched set of friends who turn up for her dinner parties. Is everyone simply hiding an obsession with Nigella, behind kitchen cupboard doors, enjoyed only during times when Daniel is away at badminton practise?

Anyway, whether we try and hide our love for her or not, there are certain things about Nigella that I think most of us can agree on.

After a day spent frantically reaching for tissues and trying to sooth a scratchy and painful cough, I have spent the evening tucked up in my PJs, on the couch with a huge bowl of rice and peas (I ate Daniel's too...oops...feed a cold, feed a cold!) watching Nigella ooze that delightful thing that she oozes over Irish wheat rolls, chocolate salt bars and squid ink risotto. The whole thirty minutes I was trying to work out what it is that makes her so wonderful, what it is that excuses her fake friends and her overly perfect house (oh my, her library!). Of course, she's sexy - Daniel was hesitating at the door as he left for badminton, and that black dressing gown is really quite something - but I don't think that's it. Plenty of people are sexy, and squid ink risotto or no squid ink risotto, that doesn't make me watch them on TV (or iPlayer - we don't have TV, for the record, TV Liscensing UK). The thing is, that Nigella knows very well that she's sexy, she plays with it, she enjoys it, she's not ashamed to be completely gorgeous all over the TV screen, and from that begins my love for Nigella. How often do we see women on TV who really, truly love themselves? Nigella quite obviously doesn't care to waste her time toning her stomach or frequenting the gym; but why would she need to?

Even in the most generous sense of the term, I am by no means 'curvy'; I don't need to see curvy women in the media to feel ok with myself (a few more stumpy women with pot bellies, please!), but I love to see Nigella flaunt her wonderfully feminine figure on our TV screens, especially as she talks about how much she loves food, cooking it, eating it and over-indulging in it.

Because have you noticed that food is becoming really really popular all of a sudden? Everyone is cooking and baking, women no longer have to turn up their noses at the idea of cooking an amazing meal to feel liberated, and baking cupcakes or kneading dough is suddenly the best way to spend an evening or weekend! Awesome! And Nigella helps in this celebration of being female, cooking, eating AND being sexy without any of the painful kitsch of Cath Kidston (sorry, my own opinion only, too painfully girly for me!). Hurrah for black silk dressing gowns and Irish wheat rolls!

Friday, 12 November 2010

Fill In The Blanks Friday Lunchtime


I caught Daniel's man flu - my first cold in 4 years (seriously!) and it didn't go down well!


1. The most spontaneous thing I've ever done is cutting off all of my hair. From down-to-my-waist to 'look at that boy running Mummy'. There was about 4 hours between making the decision and the first snip; any more time to think and I might have backed out!

2. The best gift I've ever recieved was my bike, my beautiful bike! Not entirely a gift, but without my Dad's generosity I'd never get to enjoy my freedom on such a regular (and super-awesome) basis!

3. A time that I was truly and genuinely surprised was when I was offered my current job. I thought the interview was a disaster, but how I love to be wrong (sometimes!)!

4. I can't leave the house without a bottle of hand sanitizer. It's the only necessary thing in my life.

5. My favourite day of the week is Saturday because it's a day for both relaxing and adventuring. It lasts long enough so we can go cycling/walking/running and still have time for evening fun! I can sleep, and it's our weekly pudding day which means I get to bake to my heart's content!

6. Something that can always make me laugh is Daniel; he's so silly and he knows how to use it to cheer me up when needs be. Sometimes I laugh at him rather than with him, but I think that might be the idea :-)

7. My perfect day would include an indulgent breakfast while listening to Radio 4, blue skies, two bikes, a homemade picnic, baking and an evening of chatter in a cosy pub.

Join in with Lauren! Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Ultimately Comforting Beany Pasta Bake

On a cold night after a long day at work, there is nothing I love more than pasta and lots of cheese. The nights are getting colder, the days remain long and tiring, and to counteract the blues that come alongside these wintery changes, I have perfected one of my all-time favourite dishes to match my seasonal needs. The humble and timeless pasta bake has taken a new shape in my culinary output, and despite my Mum's horror at the addition of beans to her recipe, it will probably stay this way even as the evenings get longer and the leaves re-appear on the trees.

The awesome thing about pasta bake is that it is baked! The oven warms the kitchen, and I often use the baking time to potter around, take a shower and generally finish off the little scraggly to-do tasks in my day, ready to cosy up on the couch with a bowl and a fork (because this is one of the few meals that I will eat from a bowl, on the couch, with only a fork) and forget about what's passed during the day.

And, I must add, I did try this with only *some* cheese (as oppose to loads of cheese) recently, and it wasn't nearly as good. Cheese gets bad press - more is more, in this case, and it should not be compromised in any instance (vegans and lactose-intolerants excepted). I make a double portion and take some to work for my lunch, omitting the cheese to make up for my cheesy exploits the night before. It's all about balance!

Supremely Cosy Beany Pasta Bake

Dried pasta (I use shells because they curl up inside eachother for an epecially pasta-y (pastary?) bite
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Selection of mixed veggies - peppers, courgette, aubergine, mushrooms, leeks, carrots, peas...
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
1 tin of baked beans
Mixed herbs
Fresh basil
Salt and pepper
Loads of cheese (I probably use around 200g for 2 people)
Pumpkin seeds
Sunflower seeds

1. Heat the oven to 200C. Put the pasta in boiling water and cook as per usual. Meanwhile, fry the onion, add garlic and the rest of the veggies and fry until soft (but not soggy).
2. Add the tomatoes and the baked beans to the veggies, then season with herbs, basil and salt and pepper and simmer until cooked. By now the pasta should also be cooked.
3. Stir the vegetable mix into the pasta and pour into a pyrex baking tray. Cover the whole of the top with cheese, and sprinkle on the seeds, ensuring that they're sitting snugly in the cheese. Sprinkle some herbs and pepper on top, and bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes. You might hear the seeds popping in the oven but that's fine - it adds a smoky, nutty taste to the bake which is just wonderful!

Now, cosy up in your pyjamas on the couch, and eat from a bowl, with a fork, while watching University Challenge. Bliss!

Monday, 8 November 2010

Soup Sundays: Daniel's Favourite Yet!

"I think this is my favourite soup yet!!" Daniel, November 2010

When I surveyed the contents of our fridge/veggie box on Sunday morning, I realized that we didn't have anything of special excitement with which to create a post-cycling soup extravaganza. There were loads of sweet potatoes and loads of carrots, and there's always lentils, of course, but however reliable a sweet potato and lentil soup may be, it's not really the idea of my soup Sundays - I like to experiment with my soup skills these days!

My Mum regularly cooks a host of wonderful soups, and I knew that red pepper and sweet potato soup is a regular fix in her kitchen, so I scoured my cookbooks for some inspiration of that sort. As luck would have it, I happen to have stolen the recipe book from which my Mum took this recipe, and so I was set to create something of reliable tastiness!

I must say, I was reluctant to make a red pepper soup in November. This is the season for squashes and parsnips and potatoes, not light summery vegetables that pass through you like shadows, barely touching the walls of your stomach. So I altered the recipe slightly, leaning the ingredients towards a more filling and comforting meal suited to winter cycling days and cosy evenings with a blanket and a book. Et voila! Sweet potato and red pepper soup - orange, as my soups almost always are. It went down an absolute storm - we were almost fighting over the remaing soup for a second bowlful - and served with amazing spelt buns this was the ideal Sunday evening tea, like a big cosy weekend cuddle to round everything off perfectly!

Sweet potato and red pepper soup

(should probably serve four but we were struggling to serve two!)

2 small onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 small sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 red pepper, cored and chopped
1 litre vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
Fresh chopped basil to taste

1. Fry the onion in a large saucepan until soft and add the remaining veg. Fry for a couple of minutes.
2. Season with salt and pepper, cover the pan and turn the heat down to low. Leave for 5-10 minutes to soften.
3. Add the stock and bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes until the potato is soft.
4. Blend, then stir in the basil and heat through again.

Sunday, 7 November 2010


Oddly enough, I wasn't really ready for this weekend. After having 3 days off work at the beginning of the week, I wasn't quite tired or fulfilled enough to let go for two days, and so I haven't really done as much relaxing this weekend as I normally would have done. I've been feeling a little impatient and restless - a perfect opportunity to start training for my next big race, however!

I realize now that, to really relax, I need the weather to be completely in my favour. I need lashing rain and howling winds; I need to be completely put off from going outside. So, as the sun gleamed through the curtains on Saturday morning (we have a South-facing house, which apparently is great for growing veggies, hurrah!), I was itching to get out and start pushing myself towards Half Marathon Round 2. Dressed in only my short shorts and a cotton tshirt as the weather was so beautiful, I managed a good 7km without even feeling ready to stop at the end - I haven't lost it, after all! I'm feeling optimistic and excited about this race; it won't be as gruelling as my first one (there are no real hills in this area, let alone mountains), the starting line is only a kilometre from my doorstep (I won't have to eat my breakfast in the car!) and I have the whole of the Christmas period to really work on my training (three helpings of Christmas pudding for me!). We spent the afternoon sifting through antiques and doing general house-filling tasks, as the place is still looking a bit bare. I'm loving house shopping, whereas I absolutely hate clothes shopping - somehow spending my money on spaghetti spoons and cookbooks is so much more pleasing!

And, again, the sun woke me before I was ready this morning. I'll be honest, I did have to curse it a little as I haven't had a pyjama day for months and months! During a breakfast of homemade spelt buns and honey we scoured the maps for a good local road route to practise some speedy cycling (more on this in a few months - there is a bike-related plan a-brewing!), kitted ourselves out and headed out yet again into the wonderful outdoors. The air is so cold today that I can still feel a chill inside my chest from breathing so much of it in, and my toes are still thawing a few hours later. Still we worked up a sweat speeding down desolate country roads, and cheesy scrambled eggs and bagels made a welcome lunch to return to.

After a weekend of outdoorsiness, I'm finally feeling ready to cosy up and do not a lot. My legs are aching and my chest feels clean and full of good oxygen (such a good feeling but hard to describe - you know what I mean though, I'm sure!), and the home comforts of knitting, curling up in a blanket with Thomas Mann and soup soup soup are like a whistle-stop lazy weekend in a single Sunday afternoon.

(Soup recipe to follow tomorrow!)

Friday, 5 November 2010

London Like a Monopoly Board

I am back from a busy trip to London, feeling excitable and windswept!

We went down on the train on Tuesday night, packed up with sweets and peanut butter sandwiches for our journey. Our destination was Camden Roundhouse for a Midlake gig, and our choice to walk to the venue from Kings Cross was a good one - people were hurrying home after work, streets were being packed away and tidied, and the atmosphere was one which I imagine visitors such as myself don't get to see too often. I've only been to London a couple of times, and London after dark is something I hadn't previously witnessed; rather than being scary and immersed in shadows (as I had imagined!), it was vibrant and exciting - a great warm-up for a gig atmosphere.

The gig was amazing. I could write a whole post on the magic of the flute, the rustic yet perfect sound and the intensity of the solos. If you don't know Midlake, then have a listen on their site. After each song, applause died down to silence as we anticipated the next number - something you don't often witness in gigs! During one of those silences once member of the audience shouted 'What a band...what a band', and we were all with him on that. I'm still revelling three days later!

Tube strikes hindered our return to Daniel's parents slightly, but I slumped into bed with the whole Midlake back-catalogue running through my head, and didn't rise until gone eleven the next morning (incredibly unlike me, I must say). The late start felt like such a luxury on a Wednesday, so rather than rushing out to the Victoria and Albert Museum as we had planned, we slomped around in our pyjamas and ate porridge, of course.

We arrived in London in the early afternoon, and found it buzzing with Spanish tourists. The Tube lines that were open were packed to the brim, and as I stood with my chin practically resting on another commuter's head, I decided there and then that London is not for me. However, one foot onto Old Bond Street and I became a maddening tourist myself - I was totally captivated by the grandeur of the place; grandeur but without pretention or even snobbery.

Since I have only been to London on flying visits (once to attend a protest and once to meet an old friend in a pub), the only way to see everything I wanted to see was to walk and walk and walk. And my word, did we walk! Down Old Bond Street past Buckingham Palace, then over to Westminster where we recited Wordsworth and revelled in the atmosphere, which was almost like a party!

At this point dusk was settling in, making everything squinty and brightening the lights to give a sort of neon effect. We were headed down South Bank, which I have heard so much about, and I was not dissappointed! There was some sort of shift in the atmosphere, and everyone we passed was smiling or laughing, as if delighting in the location and the beauty of the dark and the light. Here the old and grand mixed with the modern and brash; I was captivated, I couldn't stop laughing myself, and I had no idea why!

Everyone was rushing back from work, runners were weaving through the crowds, bars were filling as offices were emptying. The city seemed to explode suddenly, and we were right in the centre of it, looking on with open mouths and generally standing in the way. London isn't for me, I didn't change my mind about it the whole day, but I did fall in love with it completely. I can't wait to go back, this time for a more cultural fill, starting at the home of one of my heroes, Mr Samuel Johnson, whose house on Gough Square (just off Fleet Street) marked the end of our mammoth walking tour of London.