Why So Super-Smashy-Nicey?

What is it with minxes and bugs and holidays? Last week was the first week of the long-awaited Tattie Holidays. The Boss took a week off week and we’d planned to go camping, climbing, mountain biking, harvesting everything in the garden and generally having a blast. Instead we fed the contents of a big bottle of paracetamol to the minxes.

They go loopy on calpol, so have been alternating between lying wanly in bed and roaring up and down and off the walls and ceiling of the hall, shrieking gibberish.

It’s just some kind of virus that’s giving them head, tummy and joint pain with a fluctuating appetite. Nothing too serious. So we’ve gotten out of the house occasionally: a wee jaunt to the library, a 90-minute shamble around the woods poking at toadstools, that kind of thing. The Boss took the eldest 2 out on a beginners mountain bike ride in Fetteresso Forest. They were broken the next day, so only Mini was left to accompany him on a cycle round the local woods. The next day she too was draining green slime out of her face.

Only Mini’s been up for helping me in the garden. This year we started to turn the front lawn into a fruit and veg garden and have done better than I’d anticipated:

  • 5 weeks of spinach
  • maybe 6 dinners-worth of broccoli (dinners-worth: feed a hungry family of 5 for dinner. Obviously)
  • 2 dinners-worth of potatoes
  • 2 dinners-worth of runner beans, with more still to come
  • 10 dinners-worth of broad beans
  • 4 months of continuous lettuces and rainbow chard
  • 20 tiny apples
  • enough chillis to make a 6-jar batch of sweet chilli jam
  • herbs (rosemary, thyme, parsley, teeny bit of tarragon, chives)
  • and…
  • …3 beetroot (yep, 3. Three. One more than 2. All the size of gnomes’ golfballs. Out of a whole packet. I give up. I obviously cannot grow beetroot!)

The squash just rotted in the ground; the radishes all bolted; blueberries, raspberries and strawberries got nicked by birds before we got more than the odd one or 2; but the cabbage, garlic, spring onions and brussels sprouts are still in the ground and looking great. And we’ve got 4 eggshells filled with cress…

As for the 10 nasturtium seeds I planted to attract bees? They turned into triffids. They took over 3 raised beds, spread over and along the paths, climbed fences, grew over sunflowers and ran down other paths. The local honey smells like nasturtiums. There are no bees anywhere except the inside of my nasturtiums. Never, ever, ever plant nasturtium seeds in compost, no matter how much you’re tempted! They really went bonkers. Me and Mini are out every day collecting seeds to dry and give away. Or maybe sell – well, we need to make up the lost couple hundred pounds a month in tax credits* somehow, and I can’t see me selling enough jars of wild bramble jelly or teaching enough people to knit and crochet, can you?!

*I’m still bitter – The Boss got a little pay rise. The extra money and a bit more got taken off us in tax credits. But because Student Loan repayments are calculated on your gross pay, they suddenly needed paying. So all in we’re down a few hundred every month. Ouch, ouch, ouch. So what’s the impetus to get a wage rise again…?

I’ve been struggling to write this past couple of months, too, because Maxi’s been taking up all my worry-capacity. After a promising start at school this term it soon all plummeted. To cut an extremely long story short, she eventually had a bit of a breakdown so I involved the GP as well as the school more formally. Within a week she was referred to be assessed for High Functioning Autism.

The referral is not a surprise and is a welcome move forward. I’d really love to write all about it in detail, but am conscious that a little coven of witches in her class who pick on Maxi would use anything they find here against her. The minxes’ privacy is something I’m beginning to consider much more, now. I’m finding that I’m writing 10 never-to-be published posts for every post that I do hit ‘submit’ on because I want to talk about things that I don’t think my kids would want attributed to them.

I’m not going to give up this blog, but I can see that it’s been mutating into a bit of a sugary-nicey Show and Tell kind of thing as the minxes have grown up, with the outdoor adventures mostly going to another blog these past 3 years, and the real dirt being dished on a barely-used anonymous blog or just sniggered over privately on sleepless nights.

whatever

Yeah… whatever, Mummy

Why announce that I’ve already stopped writing the crazy kid stuff? Well, I didn’t want anyone to read recent and future posts on here and think that the girls are suddenly behaving themselves, or that our life is all crafting, foraging, happy faces and wholesome outdoor adventures. Ahahahahaha! As if! Nope – more tears and screaming and tantrums than ever before (and that’s just me and The Boss), more near-misses and panics, more house-wrecking and stupid parenting fails. But with the girls now reaching the ages when reports of their antics would cause them to squirm at the very least, I do need to put attributable stuff elsewhere. I’ll keep the photos on Instagram, though, and keep the non-arrest-able stuff here.

Anyway, wish us a healthier week ahead – I’m getting cabin fever, and that never ends well…

Taking the Minxes for a Pub Lunch

Today I sweetened the hellish ordeal that is school shoe shopping for 3 girls by taking them all the way to Arbroath and going to Wetherspoons for lunch.

It wasn’t just for the treat – I may have looked like a harassed, dumpy, middle aged mum to casual eyes, but underneath I was an eagle-eyed, inquisitive, secret reviewer of The Corn Exchange‘s child-friendliness for the Soil Association. As I explained when I reviewed our lunch out at McDonalds last week, the Soil Association are using an army of parent volunteers to help them in their Out To Lunch mission to assess and improve big food chains’ approach to feeding and serving children.

So how did our visit go? Well, we loitered outside in the sunshine for a while, reading the displayed menu in detail and bickering over whether it was ok for one girl to have a lemon San Pellegrino if the others were having orange… Give me strength! I must have banged my head letting them drink fizzy pop at all. But better to get the squabbles over and done with in private before walking past the big “Families Welcome” sign.

I settled the minxes at a big empty table before ordering immediately. Children weren’t welcome at the bar itself, so I had to leave them at the table and hope for good behaviour  (“You’re in charge of her; you’re in charge of her; you’re in charge of the table; you’re in overall charge; I’m right over there at the bar and I can see and hear everything!“).

There was no children’s menu, so I had a lot of questions about which meals might be appropriate for the younger girls and whether the adult food portion sizes could be varied. The staff member taking my order (the Duty Manager) apologised for there being no children’s menus out and said that the portion sizes couldn’t be varied. Oh. However, she made some appropriate alternative suggestions for Midi and Mini’s orders.

I delivered the kids’ Ultimate Treat Fizzy Drinks then decided to chance their good behaviour lasting long enough for me to swing past the toilets to check on a few other things:

  • There are no babychanging facilities signposted. I watched a woman with a baby try the disabled toilet (locked), then the ladies toilet (clean, airy but no changing area), then search for a staff member to fetch the radar key for the disabled toilet. I hope that full nappy held on long enough…
  • The high-chairs are the brilliant sit-beside-the-table ones, so the baby is sitting with the whole family rather than being a little outcast satellite self-contained table.
  • Lots of the restaurant’s tables are in booths or in cosy nooks, giving good privacy for breastfeeding.

Well, I was only gone 5 mins maximum, but when I came back the food had already been served. My heart sank, anticipating microwaved, rubbery rubbish. But it actually looked, smelled and tasted good. Maxi and Midi had obviously been charmed by the waitress while I was away. They said she’d been careful to make sure they all had the correct meals, had explained the cutlery (Midi and Mini were given a teaspoon alongside standard cutlery; there was no child’s cutlery when I asked) and had been very friendly:

Maxi: “She didn’t seem like she was rushing away. When she asked us a question, she actually waited until we’d replied and really listened. Not like you, Mum”.

Maxi and I had lasagne; Midi and Mini had the children’s cheesy pasta (macaroni and cheese with some broccoli stalks and peas stirred through); we had a couple of additional sides because we’re all garlic freaks and are greedy.

So, 5 mins to plate all that means it’s obviously pre-prepared food. I guess it makes sense: the menu stresses the calorific value of every single dish and all its variations, so to do that you’d have to have very precise portions and ingredients. In fact, online there’s an extremely detailed nutritional analysis of every meal. That’s fine if you care about numbers, though not all calories are equal… Looking round at the very busy Tuesday lunch-time crowd, about half were families, and lots were engaged in that thrice-daily struggle of getting food into little Johnny / Janie and to hell with whether it’s the low-cal option or not – is it good food and does it taste nice? To be fair, the food was tasty enough for that to be no problem at all for my 3 at least – they enjoyed their meals very much:

Midi: “You could taste the actual cheese in the macaroni cheese!” (As opposed to…? I was too afraid to ask)

Midi again: “The broccoli and peas were like our veg, which is really good” (Was that distant praise for my cooking?! Surely not)

Mini: “It’s so yummy! Much nicer than your macaroni” (No. No praise for my cooking at all, there).

Talking of the broccoli and peas, I loved that the children’s food came with 2 green veg and a fruit bag as standard; chips, garlic bread and fizzy drinks* were extras. Normally it’s the other way round – I usually have to ask for extra / any vegetables – so that makes me feel that someone’s thinking about the nutritional content of the food served. It would have been even better if the fruit had been a wee bowl of fresh fruit instead of processed, bagged Del Monte apple slices and grapes, but that’s just me nit-picking. Would the person preparing the (good) adult side salads have the capacity to chop extra fruit, too?

*Well, I say that fizzy drinks are extras. But now that I’m home and can actually look at the children’s menu, I can see that I could have had fizzy pop or a healthy drink included as part of the meal. What a shame – if I’d known, I’d have asked for the free bottle of water as well as ordering the Evil Fizzy Pop for the kids anyway.

Mini's lunch today has been brought to you by the colour yellow

Mini’s lunch today has been brought to you by the colour yellow

OK, ok, the fizzy pop: when I ordered it, I assumed I’d get 4 cans or maybe 4 tall glasses to pour it into (and then spend the rest of the meal mopping up the repeatedly knocked over contents). But instead the Duty Manager filled 4 huge brandy-style glasses with ice, added a big chunk of freshly-cut fruit into each, popped in a straw, and added the pop. The minxes eyes were as big as the glasses. As I watched their chubby wee fingers grip the round glasses and stubby stems, it slowly became obvious that these fishbowl glasses were a stroke of genius: easy to grip, near impossible to knock over, sophisticated-looking and stable enough to cope with the inevitable, frenzied ‘poking the fruit with the straw’. Fantastic! I’m a convert. Maybe I’ll buy my future grandchildren a set of brandy glasses instead of sippy cups…

So would I eat there again? Yes. Yes, I would. It cost twice as much as the McDonalds lunch but the improvement in comparable food quality meant it was better value for money. And it filled us up for longer. I think Wetherspoons have tasty, decent fast-food for kids at a reasonable price nailed. They just need to make more child-friendly amenities available to move them from good to great.

This doesn’t look like lemonade. Are you sure we’re in the right pub, Kyle? Photo: artwork available from HistoricalFindings on Amazon

Two 15-Minute Lunches

First, catch your squid...

First, catch your squid…

So, how did the squid-as-a-craft-activity go?

Well, I really hyped it up to the minxes: wow, you’ll be learning more sharp knife skills, and you’ll be making your own lunch! They sat down at their chopping boards, took one look at the squid, and wailed, “Ewwwwww!” as one. Harrumph! These are the girls who munched calamari happily as single-toothed babies? My, how they’ve changed! I think you can see by the photo (left) that only Mini is a good actress for the camera.

I persevered. I got them to pull out the tentacles, wash the body, find and pull out the clear plasticky quill, cut out the beak and chop the tentacles with scissors, then one by one (with me hovering), slice up the body into rings with a big sharp knife. Midi was the only one who actually concentrated – her sisters legged it to wash their hands as soon as I released them from service.

So Midi got to prepare and cook lunch for us all as a treat. It was a really quick and simple Pasta and Squid Arrabiata, served up 15 minutes after starting if you’re an adult happy with a sharp knife, 25 minutes if you’re a 7 yo under instruction. This was enough for an adult and 3 hungry children:

My favourite lunch. Drool!

My favourite lunch. Drool!

Ingredients:

  • 1 chopped onion
  • 2 crushed garlic cloves
  • splash of olive oil
  • half a red chilli, finely minced
  • 20 halved baby plum tomatoes (or a couple of handfuls of any chopped tomatoes: it’s just what was in the fridge needing used up)
  • 12 torn basil leaves
  • 4 small sliced squid

Method:

  1. Put whatever pasta you’re having it with on to boil separately; deal with that alongside making this sauce.
  2. Fry the onion and garlic in the oil over a medium-high heat in a big saucepan for a few minutes until they start to go brown.
  3. Add the tomatoes, chilli, salt and pepper. Fry for another few minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Add the squid and basil leaves. Fry for 3 – 5 minutes. Stop when the squid’s just cooked and no more. If you cook too long it’ll go rubbery and inedible.
  5. Toss the sauce through some cooked pasta and serve up with lemon wedges.

Personally, I absolutely loved it: the smell reminded me of delicious summer holiday lunches in Menorca and Greece, back when we could afford to go, and it tasted fresh and garlicky and sweet. Yummy!

Little horror!

Little horror!

The minxes hated it. They gave me the full eye-rolling, head-lolling, drooling, crying, nose-wrinkling, gagging hysteria. I wouldn’t have minded if they’d actually tried any of it first, but they refused to even taste it. I demanded that they eat all the pasta, a piece of tentacle and a single squid ring before they left the table. Midi complied quite happily with that, leaving the rest of her squid in a neat pile at the edge of her bowl; her sisters didn’t, and spent the entire time it took Midi to eat with their tongues hanging out their mouths in disgust.

I guess that won’t be going down in their list of current favourite lunches. But I’ve added the recipe here because I know they’d demolish it and ask for seconds if they’d been given it in a restaurant. And I love it! (As does my purse, at 30p a squid). <—— squid’s in! I’ll get my coat…

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The imaginatively-named Green Pasta Sauce

The imaginatively named Green Pasta Sauce

Today’s lunch was the opposite way round: they loved it, whilst I was ambivalent. It’s one of their favourites – Green Pasta Sauce – and it’s a 10-minute lunch from flash to bang. This is for 1 adult and 3 hungry children, and again start with putting whatever pasta you’re eating it with on to boil, and keep an eye on that while you make the sauce:

Ingredients:

  • a large 2-pint jug stuffed full of spinach leaves
  • 3 tablespoons of cream cheese (or equivalent in processed cheese triangles; I used 4 Laughing Cow triangles)

Method:

  1. Wash the spinach (run the jug under the tap, then drain it out), cover the jug and nuke it on High in the microwave for 2 minutes. It’ll now be about 2 tablespoons-worth of dark green stuff.
  2. Whizz it up with a stick blender.

    Spinach waiting to be whizzed

    Add the cream cheese / cheese triangles and a bit of pepper (pinch of grated nutmeg if you have it and are feeling fancy). Whizz again till it’s creamy.

  3. Dollop over the pasta.

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Little madam!

Little madam!

The spinach I planted in May bolted ages ago, but I kept it in the ground (a) to see what the flowers would look like, and (b) to prop up the broccoli growing beside it. I read that bolted spinach should be ripped up and thrown away because it tastes bitter. Well, I had a wee nibble and it tasted quite sweet to me. Midi agreed. So I pulled up 3 half-metre (!) stalks of spinach and got her to strip the leaves from them to use in today’s green pasta sauce. Yes, it had a stronger flavour than usual, but it’s not bitter or unpleasant. Perfect!

Middle of the Summer Holidays Blues

Week 1 of the summer holidays was a fantastic week at The Boss’s parents, kicking off with an awesome 2 days at Legoland. Week 2 was mostly spent at home after Mini Minx tried to slice her toe off. Week 3 was a high-octane visit to Bristol to stay with friends, with a day in Devon’s Diggerland, another day at Windsor Castle and a day in Bath. Now we’re back home again, we’ve hit the Middle of the Summer Holidays Blues when nothing is quite fun enough.

Monday was forecast for constant rain so I checked out Cineworld’s Movies for Juniors. At £1.58 a ticket (even if you book online), they’re a whole lot more affordable than the eye-watering prices for current films. So the minxes were shaken out of bed at 0745hrs and we set off for the heaving metropolis of Dundee by 0900hrs. We laughed through Home and thoroughly enjoyed it.

We piled out just before midday, so I took the zoo over to the nearby McDonalds for lunch because I’d agreed to review it for the Soil Association’s worthy Out to Lunch campaign. They’ve enlisted the help of families all over the country to help them assess whether big chain restaurants:

  • Provide fresh, good quality food you can trust
  • Make it easy for you to choose healthy food
  • Welcome children and accommodate parents’ needs

It’s fair to say that I wasn’t impressed with this afternoon’s visit to McDonalds

Tummies filled with different shades of brown food, we headed to Dunhelm Mill and Hobbycraft to look for fabric. I need to replace some fabric at the bottom of Midi’s dress that she shredded on a concrete slide, and to make a bed-curtain for Maxi. Neither visit was productive in anything other than sending the kids into Fight Mode.

By the time we hit Tesco for a food forage, the 3 of them were determined to strangle each other / push each other in front of traffic or a speeding trolley / pull over every stand of Back to School merchandise in sight (Tesco Managers: I am so, so sorry and embarrassed. Stopping to properly clear up the mess would probably have involved blood. I promise not to bring them back until there’s a safety fence around your displays. Or armed guards. Or I’ve finally got them properly trained). Steering with the Hounds of Hell attached to my shopping trolley would have been easier and less stressful, I swear. Maxi seems incapable of looking at anything without poking it (“Aw crap… Yes, I’d better take that squid too, Mr Fishmonger. 30p each? Better give me its 3 prodded friends too, then”), Midi was on a mission to make one of her sisters cry every time we entered a new aisle (and did admirably, with an 80% success rate), whilst Mini just moaned about how much she hated shopping. Yes. Me too. But you’ll hate it even more if I have to botch-tape you to the trolley, Sweetness…

Finally getting home, Midi threw a monumental strop because I insisted she return to the car to remove a sweetie wrapper. She tried to thump me on the back and trip me up as I swept past her, holding 7 shopping bags. You can probably imagine how quickly she was dispatched to her bedroom… Even when she calmed down enough to say sorry, I made sure that I moved her to tears by explaining how easily she could have killed me, and what the lifelong consequences to her would have been. Harsh? Cruel? Yes, I think so too, and that’s why I made her cry.

Enough eyes for all 3 minxes, surely. Ah... no.

Enough eyes for all 3 minxes, surely.
Ah… no.

Dinner was full of mine and The Boss’s favourite things: sprats fried in coconut oil (I’ve been coconut oil curious for ages, and finally bought some in a fit of ‘oh I can’t afford it, and never will, so better buy it now, then’), boiled samphire tossed in butter, and Madhur Jaffrey’s dry okra. Oh my, it was lovely! And one day, all 3 kids will eat all of it without complaining (“She got more eyes than me! That’s not fair!” “I don’t like the intestines!” “Gimme your samphire, I love it, you got most, it’s not fair” “I hate okra” “I hate okra, too” “Okra – waaaaaah!”).

Right now The Boss is doing the bedtime run; Mini is screeching because he’s daring to cover her eczema-crusted skin in moisturiser and eumovate; Maxi is engrossed in something that’s caught her limitless attention; Midi is hiding from soap and water, and I’m writing to get some peace and perspective on the day, and therefore hiding.

30p of fun. Hopefully

30p of fun. Hopefully

And the squid I had to buy? Well, tomorrow’s craft activity is teaching my trio how to prepare fresh squid for lunch. Well, it might be fun. Wish me luck…

Eating at McDonalds

We visited McDonalds in Dundee for lunch today to review its child-friendliness for the Soil Association, as part of its Out To Lunch campaign. They’re spending the summer, along with an army of parent volunteers, assessing whether big chain restaurants:

  • Provide fresh, good quality food you can trust
  • Make it easy for you to choose healthy food
  • Welcome children and accommodate parents’ needs

I had mixed feelings being assigned McDonalds, having been thoroughly scunnered of Happy Meals after eating there 3 times over Easter, but was game to give it a try again because it was next door to the cinema that I took the minxes to today, as a Mid Summer Holidays bribe treat.

Walking through the door, I found some floor-to-ceiling touch-screen order screens. Wow! So I can avoid that excruciating wait for 3 minxes to decide on their order after changing their minds a thousand times once we’ve finally reached the cash desk / server? The screens were easy to navigate, and even Mini Minx could understand what she could and couldn’t include in her Happy Meal. Maxi got in a flap trying to remember all the options open to her, and had to check the big menu (that didn’t actually include every option) at the front above the sole till operator. And I felt you had to already know what healthy options (side salad, carrot sticks, fruit bag) were available in order to be able to find them.

Anyway, we ordered and paid for the food no problem, and I despatched the minxes off to find a table while I loitered in the main lobby waiting on my order like most of Dundee, blocking people who wanted to place their order with (shock-horror) a real, live person. I think the delay from entering the door to getting your food was comparable to the queueing system they had before. But we parents waiting on having our food delivered actually spoke to each other (“Are those screens new? What’s the point of them? Is it faster? Load of rubbish. New, new, new. Don’t like it”). Which is more than we did with McDonald’s staff – I made a point of asking some servers and cleaners questions, but if I hadn’t, the minxes and I could have easily swanned in and out without speaking to any of the staff. That’s such a shame, because every staff member at McDonalds that I spoke to today (or ever, actually) has been polite, friendly and helpful.

The food was pretty much what you expect of McDonalds – all the fun is in the unwrapping of parcels than in savouring and eating the food itself. So I distracted myself looking around the restaurant. There was a long table filled with tablets that played computer games. Yes, they had tenuous links to food (“Help Granny Smith get her apples back from thieves”), but what were they for? Entertaining kids while their parents loitered at the serving desk? Or distracting them while they shovelled bland calories down their faces without really noticing what they were eating? I asked a member of staff what the Magic Tables were, signposted at each end of the restaurant. He said that when the projectors above them originally worked, he thought they projected fish ponds onto the table-tops that responded to people moving their hands over it. It sounded fun! And it also sounded like another way for families to get through an entire meal without noticing what they were eating or talking to each other.

After the minxes’ initial excitement at being allowed to eat and drink whatever they wanted had subsided (“Mummy, can I really have a fruit shoot?” “We’re not on Netmums, so aye – fill your boots, wee Daughter”), I asked them how their visit could have been better.

“There were no colouring-in sheets”, said Maxi, “But the crayon drawer was overflowing. What’s the point of that?” (Maybe they’d be tasty deep-fried treats…?)

“They should have Magic Tables on every table!” Midi reckoned. I disagree; I prefer the minxes to look at their food, think about what they’re eating and notice how their bodies are responding to that food. Then they can stop when they have Happy Tummies (ie are full) rather than when the feeling of being fit to burst finally surfaces into their consciousness.

I asked how their food could have been better.

“It was too plain,” said Maxi. “It would have been loads better if they’d used herbs and spices to give it richer flavours. There was too much emphasis on meat, cheese and carbs”. I pointed out that she could have chosen anything off the menu, even non-Happy Meal items. Indeed, I’d encouraged her to look. So was her criticism fair? “Yes, because the portion sizes for everything apart from Happy Meals are too big for me, and you don’t let me waste food”. True.

Midi noted that there were only 3 fish-fingers in her Happy Meal portion and that she’d wanted 5. “And there weren’t enough carrot sticks”, added my hungry 7 year old.

Mini didn’t offer an opinion on either question, being too impressed with her cheap plastic Minion toy to concentrate on what I was asking. Though I noticed that she’d left half her plain cheeseburger.

Will I go back? As things stand just now, no. McDonalds is hard to beat in terms of obtaining hot, cheap, fast food. But I feel that the subliminal message a restaurant that’s designed to appeal to children is sending is totally wrong: look at all the whizz-bang electronic things you can play with your entire visit that’ll distract you from your surrounding fellow humans and from what you’re actually throwing down your face. We won’t let your kin, strong flavours, challenging textures or even thinking get in the way of you lulling yourself into mindless sheep-sleep.

I’d rather go hungry and keep my wits about me.

Order number 24? Three Happy Meals and a coffee? Who’s Order 24? Credit: bitovi.com

Moonshine

Ah, summer! When you’re woken early by the dawn chorus, or the morning sunshine streaming through your window. Or your 5 year old sneaking into your bed and singing, “What Does The Fox Say?” loudly in your ear till your eyes open… Oh, I will have my revenge when she’s a hungover teen with a pot, a metal spoon, and a clear exit route!

Mini Minx was just excited because my sister, her partner and kids are visiting. Like the other big kids the minxes have been terrorising this summer so far, my niece and nephew were superstars with the noisy, boisterous trio – indulging them, listening to their enthusiastic witterings and patiently playing with them.

All my favourite things start with creamy butter, tangy lemon rind and egg yolk.

All my favourite things start with creamy butter, tangy lemon rind and egg yolk.

How did I reward them all? Well, with food! I made my favourite pudding (lemon meringue pie) and showed my niece how to cut salad leaves from the garden for dinner. The next day I taught her how to make 20 minute fruit scones in the food processor, then sent them all on their way home with homemade red grapefruit marmalade and foraged elderflower cordial.

Moonshine. OK, elderflower champagne. Well, for the first 2 weeks; after that it's drain cleaner

Moonshine. OK, elderflower champagne. Well, for the first 2 weeks; after that it’s drain cleaner

They were going to try the elderflower champagne, but I like my relatives too much to send them blind. Y’see, I made it using the River Cottage Elderflower Champagne recipe and left it 4 days (see photo, right). By then, the cork in the old caorunn gin bottle kept blowing out, so me and The Boss tried it tentatively. It was lovely! Gentle fizz, sweet lemon flavour, strong elderflower aroma. We had a couple of glasses each and agreed that it was only mildly alcoholic. Perfect! So we kept the stuff in the plastic bottle (left of photo) for a further week, just releasing the bubbles every day.

We tried it on Thursday night, excitedly. It smelled eggy, was too fizzy and had a woody taste to it. Not nice at all. I chucked my glass down the sink, where it fizzed and frothed like a mad scientist’s concoction. That gave me a brilliant idea – I poured some big generous glugs of it down the slow-draining bath plughole. The Boss is now terrified that it’s festering away near a blockage somewhere, about to explode. So either I’ve wrecked the pipes, or I’ve invented some frugal, superstrength drain cleaner. Excellent!

Home Grown Triffids

I promise this isn’t an “ooh, look at me: I’m Glaswegian and I eat salad, how thoroughly cosmopolitan of me!” boast. It’s just some top tips on growing salad and getting your kids to eat it. Honestly, the minxes actually have been!

lettuceRemember in May I started turning our front lawn into an edible garden with raised beds, trees and bushes? Well, after a lot of faffing around with bonfires, I realised that having a whole bed devoted to making fires to toast marshmallows over was far too self-indulgent. And the neighbours would get unhappy with the smells, never mind the sight of us 5 hunkered over a little fire every evening. So eventually I planted garlic, runner beans, a couple of brussels sprouts, rainbow chard and lettuce in the square sunken bed.

I didn’t just chuck the seeds in: I got Midi to help me make a wee nursery for the lettuces and kept them sheltered until they’d grown a few leaves. It was really easy, fun for her, and it used up empty kitchen roll tubes – bonus! Want to know how?

  • First 6 lettuces ready to go, at the end of May

    First 6 lettuces ready to go, at the end of May

    Get your kitchen roll tube and fold in one end. (No fancy origami – just press on one edge till a curved flap folds over to almost cover the open end, then do the same at the edge below. The 2 flaps should overlap).

  • Fold over the other end with 2 flaps in the same way.
  • Use scissors to snip 2 crosses in the top of the roll, about an inch across each.
  • Open one end of the tube and fill it with compost. Refold the flaps.
  • Open out the teeny flaps made by the crosses.
  • Poke a teeny lettuce seed into the middle of each open cross with the end of a pencil, a stubby finger or tweezers.
  • Place the tube on something non-drip, like a plastic fruit container lid or a tray.
  • Water through the crosses.
  • Leave outside to germinate.
  • Water when needed.

When you have decent-sized seedlings, and before the tube’s cardboard disintegrates, just put the roll flat wherever you want the lettuces to grow. I just plonked my tubes on the sunken bed, on the compost. The tubes disintegrated with all the rain and damp, just as the lettuces put down roots into the compost. Every night now I go out with a minx and get her to cut a few leaves off the outside of some of the lettuces for a salad for dinner. Sometimes I have to brush off a slug or 2, but there’s plenty for us all. And the beautiful thing is that more leaves grow, so I always have fresh salad a few feet away from me.

If you don’t have kitchen roll tubes, you can use eggboxes filled with compost. The Boss found that a huge clear plastic strawberry punnet from the supermarket perfectly fits over a 15-egg box to turn it into a free seed propagator or cloche. It’s even easier than the kitchen rolls:

  • Using only the base of the eggbox that held the eggs, fill it with compost
  • Put a seed in each eggcup and push it into the compost by a few millimeters.
  • Place the box on something non-drip, and water the compost.
  • Put the plastic punnet over the top.
  • When you’ve got seedlings, and before the cardboard disintegrates, either place the box on the soil, or cut it into individual eggcups and spread out over the soil surface.
yellow and red baby chard

yellow and red baby chard

I also grew rainbow chard because it’s pretty, but have found that the kids really like the taste of the baby leaves. I’ve got red, yellow, orange and white stems sprouting up and they look just like baby beetroot leaves (that’s in another bed). I treat chard like the lettuces: every night I cut off a few of the outer leaves with scissors. I try to eat the leaves before they’re any longer than 5 or 6″. After that, although they’re a beautiful, colourful, ornamental plant, they’re too woody to be eaten raw: you’d really need to chop up the stems and cook them. Which tastes great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a bit too much of a faff for me.

rainbow saladSo what with the baby beetroot leaves, rainbow chard and 4 different lettuces, it’s a riot of rainbows in the salad bowl every night. The kids grab the leaves by their stalks and dunk them in a communal jam-jar of simple oil and vinegar salad dressing, like they would with chips and ketchup. The salads are pretty enough that they don’t need the nasturtium flowers I grew alongside the vegetables to prettify them any further. Besides, I did something wrong and the nasturtiums have grown foot-wide leaves and are taking over the beetroot bed like triffids, but that’s another disaster story for another time…

Best Laid Plans Up in Smoke

Today I intended to take up Maxi Minx’s school trousers and spend some good quality time with her – just me and my girl, building complex train tracks in the peace and quiet of a 48hr germ-isolation from school. But you know me and my plans – they never materialise. It’s probably easiest if I just share my Facebook status:

“The silver lining: well, it’s always nice to have a spotlessly clean kitchen: every surface wiped, inside of cupboards clean, all the woodwork (yep ALL of the woodwork, including wooden cooking utensils, skirting board, doors, window frames, table and chairs) and walls scrubbed down, curtains washed and blinds aired… I may even finish by nightfall if I speed up.

“The cloud: leaving a pot of chicken stock on all night to go dry, burn and leave a thick cloud of smoke doesn’t half leave your kitchen pongy.

“The room’s sealed so well it didn’t set off the smoke alarm. So….

“The moral: The Boss is buying and fitting an additional smoke alarm for the kitchen. And we’re double-checking each other when we say the cooker’s turned off at night.

“Meh.”

I’m also grateful that we didn’t die of smoke inhalation in our sleep, but y’know, saying that would have taken away from the humour of the status update. The Boss was horrified at how thick the black, acrid smoke was when he staggered into the kitchen this morning. I must retest the smoke alarm tonight before we go to bed. Yet the oil tank leak / theft alarm has been going off constantly (the alarms are bogus – we’ve been checking!)

So I spent from 7am till 3pm with only 2 coffee breaks continuously airing and scrubbing and sniffing everything in the kitchen. I went through an entire bottle of Flash. It’s now 9pm and I still can’t get rid of the smell, despite baking a huge toffee apple cake and a chicken pie. I have nothing left to wash or wipe. I think the smell is in the walls. The now squeaky clean walls.

Poor Maxi was abandoned to play and read all day without me – I kept the kitchen door closed to keep the bitingly cold wind and the terrible smell to that room only. She wasn’t on her own, though – in a wily move, Mini declared this morning that she had a sore tummy: “It’s stinging, Mummy! Can I have chocolate?” Normally I’d have given her short shrift, but with a bunch of newborns, old people and immuno-compromised folk in the community, I will *not* be responsible for killing one of them with a carelessly shared sick bug. So Mini stayed at home. She quickly regretted it. Not only did she not get any chocolate, but she soon realised that ‘alleged sore tummy = having to sit or lie down and no fun’. She was also there to see my dismay when the second highlight of my day happened:

“What else can go wrong? Oh yeah, I just found a nugget of something smelly and horrible that should have been in a toilet (my youngest hiding a little accident?!) lurking instead in the door seal of the washing machine. So that’ll be that wash load rewashed on boil wash. If any of it survives. I guess it’s one way to get grease stains out of The Boss’s workshirts. Every cloud and all that 😉 “

The Boss brought a bottle of rum home from work tonight. He knows exactly what kind of day I’ve had!

I've been out-minxed by my mother. Bah!

I’ve been out-minxed by my mother. Bah!

 

Trout’s Chicken Soup

I’m trying to muster the energy to tell you about last couple of weekends, with a couple of birthdays, parties and poorly children. In the meantime, though, I thought I’d jot down the directions for my favourite chicken soup because I’ve eaten loads of it this week. I love it when I’m feeling a bit off-colour, or when I want something light to eat that’s filling, or when I need comfort food, or when I’m fed-up with bland food. Bland this definitely is not! The minxes love it too, though I suspect in their cases it’s mostly because I let them add the flavourings at the end to their bowls as suits them, ie they get to play with their food.

I also say ‘directions’ rather than recipe, because it’s not the kind of thing I make the same way twice. Finally, this amount is generally enough to feed all 5 of us. And we’re pretty greedy.

1. First, put 1.5 – 2 litres of chicken stock in a big pot. You could use 1 or 2 stock cubes and the right amount of boiling water if you wanted, but honestly, if you’re roasting a chicken any time soon, it’s much nicer and really, really easy to make your own. See directions at the end.

Chicken Soup Ingredients2. Add some vegetables (the last time I added some sliced bits off the green end of a leek and 2 big carrots sliced on the diagonal. The time before that it was chopped onion and a tin of drained sweetcorn. Whatever you like. Think about colours: leek, carrot, red pepper and sweetcorn would look amazing!).

3. Add some leftover chicken meat and / or 1-2 sliced garlic cloves and / or a chopped up ginger slice, if you like.

4. Bring to the boil then simmer for 3 mins to start cooking the vegetables.

5. Add some thin noodles (it’s ASDA udon noodles in the photo. They were perfectly light. Thread noodles are great, too).

6. Continue simmering until the noodles are cooked – 4 mins or so.

Ready to serve up

Ready to serve up!

7. Remove from the heat then add your flavourings! In this amount of soup, I like 2 tablespoons of sweet chilli sauce, 2 teaspoons of fish sauce (nam pla) and the juice of half a lime. I don’t add salt because it doesn’t taste right in this soup.

8. Serve with whatever bread you fancy. Adjust your flavourings to your own taste.

Chicken Stock: pick the roasted chicken carcass of most of its meat. Put the carcass in your biggest pan. Cover it with cold water (about 2 litres of water). Add a single sliced garlic clove, a couple of spring onions chopped into 3 or 4 bits, and a couple of slices of ginger. Bring to the boil. Put the lid on. Simmer gently for 90 mins – 2 hours. Strain. Chuck away the bones and veg. The liquid will keep in the fridge for a couple of days, or you could freeze it the same day.

Cutie Pie

It’s winter, so I’m on a massive bake- and preserve-athon. Every year I say I won’t do it, and every year my greed overrules my mind.

It was all the fault of my local farm shop, What’s For Tea Tonight? Marie, the owner, had made a beautiful display of seville oranges and lemons that tempted me from their huge basket, backed with printouts of a good recipe for marmalade.

“Oh, go on”, I crumbled, “I’ll just have a cheeky wee 700g of oranges”.

That made 5 jars-worth of marmalade. As it always does, the heavenly smell of the marmalade cut through the stuffiness of the indoors-smell all houses seem to fill up with in winter. It also cut through a horrible cold I have. And after 6 years of making it every January, I finally made a fairly epic-free batch of marmalade that set, without chopping bits off my fingers, burning anything, spilling anything, setting fire to anything, swearing at the jam thermometer, smashing the set-testing saucer, etc. etc. So I had to make some more! I meant to make red grapefruit marmalade, because 1 big fruit makes 2 neat jars, but with one thing and another I ended up making citrus marmalade: red and pink grapefruit, lemon and blood orange. It ended up quite gently set, but oh my word, it’s a good batch! 5 jars again, and beautifully tangy and aromatic.

So then that set off my cravings for cupcakes. I’ve been thinking of cupcakes a lot. I’d love

Your mother's hungry - better ice another 20

Your mother’s hungry – better ice another 20

to teach the nursery kids more cake recipes, but am sticking to the brief of mostly going for healthy recipes. So I’m fantasizing a lot about really unhealthy, dirty, stuff-em-in-your-cakehole cupcakes. I baked 2 batches of peanut butter cupcakes last week alone. The Boss and the minxes made a fairly runny nutella icing that was far too sweet and sickly for the gorgeous cupcakes. It didn’t satisfy the craving at all, so I had to make another batch so I could try a dark fudge thick icing. Oh yes, lots better!

With my cold not shifting and growing into a horrible cold sore, I sulked and so me and Mini baked a big clootie dumpling yesterday. It’s perfect for baking with children because it’s literally measure out a long list of dry ingredients into a bowl, mix them all together, then bind them with milk, bung in a muslin, then boil for 5 hours. The dumpling swelled to about double its original size and was much lighter than it looks. I grated clementine peel into it instead of orange peel and the flavour really cuts through all the thick cinnamon and gingery spice. Delicious! We polished the lot off after dinner and lunch today, along with an entire vat of custard and cream.

cutie dumplingOh, and Mini’s christened it ‘Cutie Dumpling’ because she misheard ‘clootie’. I definitely prefer her version!

Next up in the kitchen will be some lemon and ginger marmalade and maybe another Delaware Pudding (I’m seeing that suet is featuring highly in my cravings right now…). Before I do, are there any recipes you fancy sharing with me or getting?