Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Persephone Project

At the start of the year, my mind turned, as it often does, to projects. I have seen blogs devoted to all sorts of things, from the scary (build up to 100 press ups!) to scrumptious (cook your way through Cherry Cakes and Ginger Beer by Jane Brocket) and I have to say, I found the latter more inspiring than the former!

Although the writer sadly abandoned her blog early on in the challenge, she set out to make a recipe from Cherry Cakes and Ginger Beer, and read the classic chilren's novel which inspired it. It reminded me of another blog I had read, Knit The Classics, which sadly disappeared, where the bloggers knitted items inspired by classic novels.

It came to me one morning, when I was overcome with the sudden but urgent desire to re-read Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple. My project would be The Persephone Project - in which I will read all the books published by Persephone, one after another. I will of course intersperse them with other books, and I anticipate it taking me years to finish. But I will enjoy the journey, I really will. As an added bonus, I plan to cook, make, or do something inspired by each book, and blog about that too.

I would love to buy them, all at once, and have them on their own book shelf to be savoured and picked one by one like ripe cherries, but alas, neither funds nor space will stretch to that. I would like to buy them, one by one, but again, even though they are reasonably priced, I am conserving funds at the moment. So, I shall order them from the library, and then purchase the ones that speak most to my soul. I ordered William, An Englishman a few weeks ago. Unfortunately there was only one copy in the county, and it was out on loan, so I had to wait for it to be returned and then delivered to my branch before I could borrow it. But happily it has arrived, and I have started it, and the project is begun.

I have not yet decided what my cook/make/do will be, but I will let you know what it is when I have thought of it, and post a book review too. Do join in, if you would like to read along with me!

Daffodil Dreams, Snowdrop Shivers

Last night, I dreamt the daffodils were flowering. Every garden was filled with them, and everywhere I looked, there were gold heads nodding in the breeze. Perhaps it is because I fell asleep to the scent of a gorgeous bunch of pale creamy narcissus that my lovely sister gave me on Friday. Today was destined to be a day filled with flowers, the first heralds that winter is nearly over and the start of spring is nearly here - but not daffodils, snowdrops.

If you have been visiting here for a while, then you will not be surprised to know that we wrapped ourselves up warm, and drove to the Gardens of Easton Lodge to walk among the snowdrops there. It is about a 30 minute drive from where we live, and as you get closer, it feels as though you are entering Midsomer Murder Country. Today was bitterly cold, and even as well wrapped up as we were, we were still chilly. It is worth it though, to see the carpets of snowdrops spread out amongst the grounds.

I can't capture in words what it is about these pretty little flowers, perhaps it is their simplicity, their short season, or the fact that they are the first green shoots of hope after winter - whatever it is, I love them. We explored for a little while on our own, walking the length of the Japanese Glade down the little lake. The wind was biting though, and we decided to warm up with some lunch. The volunteers were serving lunches out of a little hut, with no electricity or running water. I think they did an impressive job (although one lady was horrified they were serving instant coffee, and didn't have a barista!) and we had freshly cooked on a gas ring bacon rolls and coffee. The only other menu option was homemade vegetable soup, or a variety of homemade cakes. I really like the simplicity of it - a few things, done well.

After that, we were just in time for the guided walk and talk about the history of the gardens. I knew a few bits from previous visits, but our guides really made the place come alive, and I must remember to look up a biography of Daisy, Countess of Warwick, whose home it once was.

We were so cold that when we got back to the car, we had to have the heaters on, and a blanket over us! Back at home we have enjoyed a gentle Sunday afternoon of Miss Marple, pots of tea, the Sunday papers, and one of my favourite Sunday evening suppers - Nigella's smoked haddock. You bake it in a bath of milk, sprinkled with peas, anointed with a large vine tomato halved, and an egg cracked in. When it is done, you serve it with soft white bread, and it is so simple, warming and comforting, it is unbelievable.

Poor Carl has come down with a cold, so we have eucalyptus oil burning, and I am about to go and make him another hot honey and lemon drink. I don't think it will be a late night tonight. I like sleepy Sunday evenings, but they seem to follow Sunday afternoons so very quickly!

I am hoping to make a little more time to post a bit more regularly over the next few weeks. I love writing, and I miss it when I don't. Coming soon, a review of An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. The lovely Alison at Brocante Home has mentioned it once or twice, and I was intrigued by the blurb on amazon. I have to say, it is a long time since I have fallen in love so hard and swiftly with a book, and I think, even half way through, that this is a book with the power to change lives.

Wherever you are, I hope you are warm and cosy this evening,

Love Mimi xxx

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Evening Serenade

My evenings have started to take on a lovely pattern, recently. I step into my kitchen, and put on some music to cook too. Just a small thing, but it makes me happy. It is very unusual for me to be home after Carl - normally I have enough time to get home, throw open all the windows and cook dinner, with him arriving just before it is ready.

We have a little ipod dock in the kitchen, (technology!) and I have been stirring, chopping, simmering and baking to Peggy Lee and Etta James. The kitchen is filled with 'At Last' 'I'd Rather Go Blind' 'I Was Almost Persuaded' and my current favourite, 'I'm A Woman'. I find myself cooking in time to the music and humming along. I love cooking, but sometimes after a long day at work, and when it is an 'everyday' meal my enthusiasm can be a little dulled, and I have found this a great way to perk it all up a bit.

Last night I created another soup recipe - this time for Curried Cauliflower and Lentil Soup. I had bought a cauliflower to use in Monday's Thai Green Curry, but somehow forgot to put it in! So I decided to use it tonight instead. I started this, as I do so many of my soups, by throwing a chopped onion in a pan to soften while the kettle boiled. This time though, I saved about a quarter of the onion back, slicing it into half moons rather than chopping it, and threw it into a small pan on a low heat to caramelize. Then I took my cauliflower and grated it into the pan. Be warned, it is a messy job, and cauliflower seemed to scatter itself quite far and wide - but I didn't want to blend this soup, I wanted it to have texture, and grating seemed the perfect way to go. To the grated cauliflower and onion I added hot water from the kettle and a vegetable stock cube, a shake of cumin, a couple of teaspoons of mild curry powder, and a pinch of dried chillies for oomph. Then I stirred into the caramelizing onions a whisper of cumin and a tiny pinch of dried chillies, and stirred them round, turned the heat down low, and left them to infuse. While the soup bubbled away merrily, I rummaged in the cupboard for the dried red lentils, and put in about a handful. I then remembered the half a butternut squash I had, and decided to use that too. I microwaved it until soft, then threw it in the blender with several ladles of the soup, and whizzed until thick, smooth, and glossy. I tipped that into the soup and stirred it in - immediately the soup became thicker, and it seemed to bring it all together, somehow. I served the soup with a spoonful of the crispy spicy onions on top, which I think worked well. I will be thinking more about things to sprinkle on top/stir into our Wednesday evening soups in future! Annastasia brought with her the most amazing wholemeal seeded loaf - the seeds were in the crumb as well as the crust of the bread, and it had real bite to it - bliss.

I really do love Wednesday evenings - a pot of tea with a dear friend, sharing the soup, going to dance class, and coming home feeling good.

Sunday, 17 February 2013


Today has been the sweetest of Sundays. Even though I am so, so lucky, and have two-day weekends now, Sunday stands apart, special and somehow different to every other day of the week. I feel like I have been holding my breath, subconsciously for the past few weeks. I have been busy at work, poor Carl has been busier. He comes home, he eats, he sits up working, and then gets up early to go back into the office. I work until sometimes I feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. It will pass, it will pass, and in a few weeks our lives should be a little quieter.

But for now, I have been feeling like a string being pulled more and more taught. Never enough time. Never enough energy. Too tired, just too tired to do anything at all. It came to a head, more or less, on Friday. I love having friends to visit, and I had two of the girls dearest to me come for a meeting about a secret project, and dinner. But oh, although it was lovely to see them, and they are the least judgemental people in the world, I didn't feel equal to it. I had picked up our vacuum cleaner a few weeks ago, and mysteriously, water came pouring out of it. Needless to say I couldn't use it, but we hadn't had time to buy a new one. I had been bone tired the night before and not washed up. I had meant to come home early and wash up before they arrived, but I ended up having to stay late at work instead. Our forks are somehow disappearing - I have no idea how, or why. Perhaps it is because I have been reading The Little Stranger for book club, but I suddenly decided that perhaps some malevolent force had taken them. After the girls went home, although it had been wonderful to see them, I just felt I should have offered them more. A cleaner home to welcome them into. My judgement, not theirs. Carl was working in the bedroom, and I lay beside him at about half past nine, and just cried. I cried because I was tired, because the floor needed hoovering, because the forks were disappearing, because I still don't have a permanent contract and am halfway through my secondment, because there is so much I want to do and so little time to do it in...I was worn to a ravelling, and cried.

I woke up the next morning, fully dressed. I had cried, Carl had held me, and I had almost passed out into a sleep deep and black. And when I woke up, I felt like I was suddenly breathing clean, fresh air for the first time in ages. I got up, put my hair up, some music on, and did all the washing up. I turned out a kitchen cupboard. Today, we bought a new vacuum cleaner, and oh, how I love it! We got it reduced from £129.99 to £59.99 and I suddenly realised how our elderly vacuum cleaner had been struggling. The carpets look fantastic. Relief, relief at finally getting that job done.

Walking into town, hand in hand, through the park. The air fresh and light and clean in our lungs, and carried on the breeze, the church bells ringing. Sitting knee to knee eating scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. Smiling, time together, no work. Falling in love with my husband all over again for the millionth time, from the way he smiled at me over his latte cup. Picking up our little bits of shopping, and the aforementioned new vacuum cleaner. Throwing open all the windows. A load of washing whirling in the machine while I hummed along to 'I'm A Woman' by Peggy Lee, and turned out the freezer, thoroughly.

Turning out the freezer was actually really liberating. Another source of relief. Realising I have not been using it in the best way. We have never been ones to have a freezer full of ready meals - I have bread in it, vegetables, meat, fish, fruit, and portions of soups, stews, and the likes that I have made double portions of. Only I realised that I have been using it like a security blanket. I have several packets of chicken breast strips that I bought when they were on 'buy two for..' offers and also reduced because it was the day of their sell-by date. And somehow have never used them, because by having them in the freezer, it feels like I have 'plenty'. A strange way of thinking, and I am not sure I am pinning it to the page as I mean to, but stripping it away, hoarding packets of almost-out-of-date chicken isn't really the best idea. Then I turned my attention to the bags and plastic tubs of unidentified veggie curries and soups and things that I have made at unspecified dates, and realised how many have freezer burn and how many I have no idea how old they are.

So, I took a deep breath and decided it is time to let go. Let go of everything that isn't going to nourish us. Five or six bags of bread with just the heel ends, freezer burned and dry, but held on to 'just in case'. The chicken from May that I have taken out, catalogued, and put back in, time and time again. The freezer is emptier now, but somehow I feel like I have got more. Everything in there I can identify, know what it is and how old it is. And again, the feeling of relief.

The other night, Carl said he wouldn't mind if we had more takeaways over the next few weeks because as much as he is working hard he knows I am too, and I am picking up the cooking and cleaning and running of the household, and he thought that might give me a break. I thought that was so lovely and thoughtful, but also, while I love an occasional treat, I don't want to turn to takeaways out of a lack of time. They are after all expensive, not as good for you as a home cooked meal, and a treat loses its allure when it is a stop-gap replacement. Now I have turned out the fridge, the freezer and the food cupboards, I feel ready to start from scratch again with a weekly menu plan and grocery delivery order. No more picking up things on my way home from work. And part of me feels so pleased that it is so easy to start over. But part of me feels frustrated at starting over again, going back to form a habit that I used to do all the time. Starting again, starting over, a relief and a slight vexation all at the same time.

I really didn't mean this post to be so long. Perhaps another thing I need to start over is posting here, little and often rather than nothing for ages and then a long stream, trying to order my thoughts and letting off steam. Trying to make sense of it all. Being so relieved, suddenly. There are so many other things that I sat down to write about tonight. About Shrove Tuesday and Valentine's Day, and Chinese New Year. My new dress. So many little things. But they will wait. I feel the first stirrings of spring, and it feels so good. It feels like it has been a long winter, both in reality, and metaphorically. The first stirrings of spring are welcome indeed.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Another Week, Another Soup

We are really lucky, I think, that we have a proliferation of unusual food shops in our little city. It has really only been the past few years that they have started to appear, but we now have a Chinese shop, a Thai market stall, a Polish delicatessen, and an Afro-Caribbean grocery.

I shop quite often in the latter - there is a wonderful array for fresh fruit and vegetables at really good prices, as well as some fantastic herbs and spices. The people who run it are really friendly, and I like to support them by buying as much as I can there.

It happens to be on my way home, and has offered some excellent inspiration for my weekly Wednesday soups. This week, I had in mind to make a sweet potato soup, and so on the way home picked up 4 sweet potatoes, a large red onion, a few limes, and a tin of coconut milk. Making the soup was simplicity itself, and I was really pleased with both the cheerful colour of it and the depth of flavour.

This was another of my roasted soups, and I started with cutting the potatoes and onion into chunks, drizzling lightly with olive oil, and roasting in the oven for about half an hour, until everything was soft. I put these into my blender along with a tin of coconut milk, and a good dollop of thai green curry paste. (Do check, if you are making the soup for vegetarians or vegans that your curry paste is suitable for them - many of them use fish sauce as an ingredient). I cut a lime into quarters, and added the flesh from one of the quarters, and whizzed it all up together.

The resulting soup was really more of a puree, so I thinned it with some hot water from the kettle, and threw in a handful of fresh coriander before blitzing it again, and then returned it to the pan to warm through, before serving.

When I eat soup like this, made out of fresh simple ingredients, I get double enjoyment out of it, as I know it tastes good, and is doing me good too.

So, apart from making soup this week, what else have I been doing?

Reading...I reread Dorothy Whipple's Someone At A Distance this week. I love her writing so much, and this story stood up well to a second reading. It is a story of a husband led astray by his elderly mother's French companion, and the aftermath. The first time I read it, I felt more of the horror of the inevitability of some parts of the story, but this time around I was more able to appreciate some of the beauty in the details and the writing. Whipple makes some observations that are very astute, and paints such evocative portraits with only a few words. There is one part where she talks of how the wife has joined the ranks of ladies who eat boiled eggs for dinner, and I knew exactly what she meant. I have started now to reread Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. I am not sure why I am in such a mood to revisit a few favourites at the moment, but I am. Knitting...more on my soft gray sparkly Miss Marple scarf. I seem to have had very few evenings in, but I am enjoying working on it when I have time. The pattern is here if you fancy making one of your own: Eating...a really lovely spicy chicken bake from The Hairy Dieters book. We ate at a friend's house and this is what she made us, it was really delicious, and I have ordered the book from the library so I can try out some of the other recipes. Watching...Poirot of course, the perfect thing for a Sunday afternoon. Buying...dresses for the office. I had not particularly planned to go dress shopping, but as I was browsing, on three different occasions, I found dresses that I loved and were in the sale! First there was a blue and white flowered ditsy print dress which really nips in around the waist; then there was a black lace dress with a black slip dress underneath. The last dress came this morning, a jersey dress which looks like a wrap dress, but isn't. So that is me sorted for work for quite some time to come! These last days of the dregs of the sales can turn up some real bargains - I have three dresses for less than the price of one! I really like wearing dresses for the office (and indeed at home). They are so quick and easy and help me channel a little bit of the Mad Men Vibe.

Before I go, do go and visit this lovely blog and post about the joys of soup!