House guest

We have our first foreign language student coming on Sunday. This will mean that I need to organise her bedroom tomorrow and give it a thorough clean. It has become a bit of a dumping ground since DD2 went to university. The detritus includes a host of DIY equipment, suitcases, laundry and my daughter’s gecko, which is shut away because the kitten won’t leave her alone.

I am also planning my menus for the week. I am avoiding pasta as she is Italian and I don’t want to show myself up! I will stick to plain and plentiful I think.

She is only here for a week. Let’s hope she is as nice as last year’s bunch.

Offally Odd

Me and Mr Shoestring watched The Taste on Channel 4 last night, mainly because Mr S quite likes the beautiful Nigella. We were both fascinated and appalled because the theme of this week’s competition was offal. The chefs could choose tripe, brains, pig’s heads, blood – every part of an animal you could think of. When they showed a pot of lamb testicles, even I winced and crossed my legs!

The chefs made some really tasty looking dishes, I would have tried any of them perfectly happily. It did make me consider my own attitude – and British attitude’s generally – about eating animals. Why is it ok for most people to eat the meat/muscle but not the offal? Why is a deep fried pig’s ear a delicacy in some cultures and only fit as a treat for the dog here?

I recently cooked liver and bacon and it was lovely. But, as offal is cheap, maybe it is the time to take a good look in the butcher’s and try something else. After all, if we are going to kill an animal for food, shouldn’t we eat it all?

There is a related story in the news today about a butcher’s shop in Sudbury, not far from me, who has had to remove its display of dead animals, including pigs heads and fully feathered geese and ducks – because they had so many complaints from the public. Unless they are vegetarian, does it make sense to be offended by the sight of a dead animal that they would probably be happy to eat on a plate smothered in gravy?

I think we have a strange ability to disassociate the meat we are eating with the reality of what it actually is. I include myself in this! Off to find some recipes for brain and testicle stew …


Apricot Fool – posh nosh

Apricot fool

I thought I would post my recipe for Boozy Apricot Fool, as it went down so well with everybody at the weekend. It’s not that cheap to make I suppose, and very calorific, but you have to push the boat out a bit when you are entertaining. You can substitute the wine for fruit juice if you prefer.

Serves 4

110g dried apricots
150ml white wine or fruit juice
About 3 tbsp lemon juice (I used half a lemon)
25g caster sugar
2 egg whites
150ml double cream, whipped until it forms soft peaks
Flaked almonds to decorate

apricot foolSoak your dried apricots overnight in the wine or juice, then simmer them gently in a covered pan for about 15-20 minutes (less time if they are pre-soaked). Let it cool, then zap to a puree in the blender. Whisk the egg whites until they are stiff, then add the sugar and whisk a bit more.

Combine your ingredients, folding in the cream and lemon juice. Spoon the mixture into 4 nice glass dishes (mine are in 1970s freebies from the petrol station – if you are a certain age you will recognise them!). Sprinkle with flaked almonds and chill in the fridge for at least 3 hours.

This delicious apricot fool is one of my favourite naughty puddings!

Shoestring Sausage and Vegetable Ragu

This is one to satisfy the meat eaters in my family whilst being frugal and delicious. It is full of a rainbow of different coloured mediterranean vegetables, so is healthy as well. I used Aldi pork sausages, which are very cheap, but can be a bit fatty, so it is important to grill rather than fry them.

serves 4-6

image1 red onion, chopped
1 red pepper, diced
Half an aubergine, diced
1 courgette, diced
Olive oil
6 pork sausages
500ml passata
Tbsp tomato purée
100 vegetable stock or water
Pinch of chilli flakes
450g pasta

First grill your sausages.  Whilst they are cooking, heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large pan and add all the vegetables. Fry gently for about 5 minutes until softened. Add the passata, tomato purée, chilli flakes, stock and seasoning. Simmer gently and add the sausages, chopped into three or four pieces. Cook for 10 minutes. Cook the pasta in a large pan of water, drain and mix with the ragu. Serve straight away.

I am looking forward to grabbing a bowl of this before I shoot off to yoga tonight. An easy supper!

Rubbish Customer Service!

I work in customer services and I pride myself in offering the best service that I can. I therefore get just a little irritated – no make that very annoyed – when I come across really poor practices.

I have recently had to attempt to communicate with my energy provider, First Utility, and each time I have had to BREATHE to get my blood pressure down. It isn’t the individual members of staff. If I manage to actually speak to someone they are always very helpful. It is getting through in the first place that is difficult. This morning before work I wasted an hour and a half of my life attempting to resolve a problem I am having with my meter. This was my third phone call so I knew what to expect and that I had enough time. First I waited in a queue for 15 minutes and was happy it was answered so quickly – last time I waited 25 minutes in my lunch hour. However it seemed I had the wrong department so I was transferred elsewhere, and waited for 20 minutes in the queue again. Finally I got a nice chap who was very helpful and sorted for an engineer to change my meter but said I would now need my payments adjusting and he would transfer me to the direct debits team. After 30 minutes of hold music I decided I must be in a phantom queue and that my call would never be answered so I dialled in again and waited 20 minutes more.

I have tried emailing them over the past three months and many of my emails have just been ignored, even one headed ‘official complaint’. When I have had a response the query hasn’t been fully answered so I have had to email again and wait weeks for a response.

If this was happening where I work, heads would roll! They obviously just don’t have enough staff. There are lots of young people needing jobs out there so it is not good enough. How did we get to the stage where these large companies think it is acceptable to treat customers this way? It wouldn’t happen if they could see us queuing face to face. There would be a riot!

Anyway, rant over and back to work 🙂

Poultry Stock: a great foundation

imageI have mentioned in a previous post that I have a big bucket of leeks that I pulled out of the garden ready to be made into delicious leek and potato soup. In preparation for this I pulled a couple of poultry carcasses out of the freezer to make into stock. One of them happened to be the Christmas turkey; it was high time I used that!

If you have never made stock before I urge you to try it. Why throw poultry carcasses in the bin when they are full of nutrients and flavour? Home made stock adds a certain something to soups and casseroles that the powdered stuff just doesn’t. You can make stock with any bones, or even just with vegetables. I happened to have a chicken and the turkey carcass in my freezer so I used those.

I put them in a big pot with a couple of carrots, an onion chopped in half, three sticks of celery, 2 bay leaves and about 6 black peppercorns and added enough cold water to cover. I put on the pan lid and brought it to the boil then left it simmering on a very low heat and came to work. DD3 had instructions to turn it off after 3 hours. When I get home I will strain it and it will be ready for my soup making tomorrow. Easy!

If the turkey carcass had been smaller I would have chucked it all in the slow cooker but there was no way it was going to fit 🙂

Weird weather

Well, you don’t need me to tell you the weather is behaving oddly pretty well everywhere. This morning I popped into Asda for some bits and it was so warm and sunny I had to take my coat off on the way in. Literally 10 minutes later I came out to a rainstorm! This explains my crazy frizzy hair today; I had no umbrella and my crowning glory doesn’t like damp!

imageThe sun soon returned and with it a beautiful rainbow. There is something about a rainbow that is so uplifting; I didn’t find a pot of gold at the end of it but it is a reminder that something good can come from stormy times 🙂

imageOur kitten has just come back from the vet’s where she was spayed today. She is eating her dinner already so no harm done!

Super Sunday

imageIt is a beautiful day here in Essex. Amazing after the driving wind and rain of the last week or so. I even have two lots of washing on the line!

imageWhilst I was out there I dug up the rest of the leeks and found a few sad looking sprouts – the sprout tops looked more promising so we will eat those as cabbage. Leek and potato soup on the agenda I think!

We have also completed another two of our 52 projects. Resealing the bath and whitening the grout means the bathroom is done and another one I have been meaning to do for ages was to clean out the cupboards in there. They were full of out of date medication and sorry looking soggy old plasters. Now they are beautifully tidy 🙂

That makes 4 projects. As we started late we still have some catching up to do I think!

Unexpected Events…

I took a rare foray into town this morning. I rarely go, unless there is something specific I need as I don’t have any money so what’s the point?

I remembered I had a voucher from my birthday last year for the hairdresser’s based in our local department store, so I was really pleased. A posh haircut for almost no money (I had £29 left on the card but their cheapest cut and blow dry is £37). When I arrived I thought I must be developing dementia because the salon was not where I had left it a year ago when I used the first bit of the voucher! ‘Oh, they have moved across the road now,’ I was told when I asked a sales assistant. Bemused, I wandered over the road, and they were expecting me. Shame they hadn’t mentioned the fact that they had moved when I called to make the appointment! Then, I realised that they wouldn’t take my voucher as it was for the department store and not specifically for the salon….

I gave in and had my hair done anyway – it was in desperate need of a cut and I had driven into town so I figured I would bite the financial bullet. Luckily it was a good cut and I was pretty happy with the result.

After, since I had £29 to spend in the department store I had a look in their clearance section. They had a fantastic set of Denby kitchen knives for £35, reduced from £80. I have never had a decent set of knives in my life! So I went for it and they are actually beautiful and fabulous quality. Not bad for £6, even if I did have to put the cost of my haircut towards them…

I had a quick walk around the clothing department whilst I was there. It felt as if I was in an alien world fleetingly – a world where the aliens will pay £200 for a top!! I popped into QD after though, so I was soon back in my natural environment!

Not a great morning from a financial view point, but I had a nice time so I am not going to stress about it. 🙂

Spaghetti Cheese Casserole

spaghettiToday is my 100th blog post! I can’t believe I have written that many!

We had this yesterday – an old favourite adapted from Marguerite Patten’s Health Food Cookery. It’s my usual – cheap and cheeful, and easy after a day at work. It’s an old recipe, so it is in ‘old money’.

8 oz spaghetti
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion
2 sticks celery
2 cloves garlic
3 oz mushrooms
4 large tomatoes (I have made it with tinned in the past)
2 grated medium carrots
1/4 pint cider or white wine
1 tsp oregano
2 tbsp chopped parsley
6 oz grated cheddar

Heat the oil and cook the onion, celery, mushrooms and garlic for 5 minutes until soft. Add the tomatoes, carrots, herbs with the wine or cider and bring to the boil, then simmer gently for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti. Add this to the pan with the vegetables and grated cheese, and season to taste.

We had this with a large green salad. It is supposed to serve 4 but 3 adults scoffed the lot. 🙂

What granny didn’t buy

imageOn Sunday when we visited Leigh on Sea we popped into the small museum in the old town. It was a fisherman’s cottage from the 1800s and was incredibly spartan. They lived a very hard life with minimal possessions – no mobile phones, PCs, TVs or tablets for them. I am not romanticising this life: I would hate to live such a harsh and basic existence and I like a few home comforts! But it made me think about the things we possess and what we actually need.

dresserWhat would my grandma not even have considered a possibility, let alone a necessity? Things that spring immediately to mind are:

Air fresheners
Kitchen roll
Mobile phones
Disposable nappies
Disposable dishcloths
Fabric softener
Baby wipes, face wipes, disinfectant wipes
Spray furniture polish
Different cleaning sprays for every job: bathroom, kitchen, windows, etc
Tumble driers
Ready meals
Takeout food in polystyrene boxes
Instant rice or noodles
Plastic carrier bags
Portable computer games
Liquid handwash
Satellite/cable tv
The Internet – yikes!
Fake tan
Fizzy drinks
Tablets (well, only the pharmaceutical kind)
Self serve checkouts
Social networking
Annual holidays
Cheap air travel

I could go on of course. I am no Luddite. There are many things in the list above I would hate to be without and make my life so much better. My dishwasher saves me so much time, the microwave is a boon to warm up leftovers and defrost soup from the freezer. As for the Internet and PCs – I think they are marvellous! However, none of them are essential – they are all luxuries. From the point of view of frugality it is useful to think about what I really could do without if necessary. Lots of the things on my list I already don’t buy – I will never give into botox, even if I win the lottery tomorrow!

So I will cut down and cut back when I need to, although I will still blog as I use my work laptop. Perks of the job 🙂

Bracing Day by the Sea


Mr Shoestring has had a craving for cockles  for about three weeks, so yesterday as it wasn’t raining for once he dragged me down to Old Leigh on the Essex Coast for a brisk walk and some seafood.

imageIt certainly was brisk and bracing, although we had sunshine and blue skies for a bit.  There were lots of families braving the winds and shovelling plates of cockles, winkles and jellied eels, covered with vinegar and white pepper.

We saw this really pretty cottage.

imageBy the time we left it was freezing rather than bracing and we couldn’t wait to get back in the car for to drink our flask of coffee. A good day though for the price of the diesel and half a pint of cockles 🙂


Cheesy Mushroom and Lentil Cottage Pie

On with the veggie fest!

Last night’s dinner was this old vegetarian favourite. Easy to make, healthy and tasty.

veg for pieServes 4

1 tbsp veg oil and 1 heaped tsp butter
1 large onion, diced
2 stalks of celery, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
250g red lentils
250g mushrooms
2 tbsp tomato puree
1.5 pints of veg stock (I used 2 stock cubes)
1 sachet bouquet garni
1tbsp Worcestershire sauce (use the veggie version if you are a non fish eater as it usually contains anchovies)
lentil shepherds pie1 kg potatoes, peeled, cooked and mashed with a little butter and milk
100g grated cheddar

Heat the oil and butter together gently and cook the onion, celery, garlic and mushrooms until soft. Add the lentils, stock and tomato puree with the bouquet garni. Bring to the boil then simmer with the lid on for around 20 minutes, stirring every now and then. Keep an eye on this mixture and add a little more stock if necessary.

When the lentils are soft, remove the bouquet garni sachet and season with salt, pepper and the Worcestershire sauce to taste. Put in a suitable oven proof container and top with the mash, then the cheese. Bake in a preheated oven at gas mark 4, 180 degrees until browned on top.

We had this with some of the frozen broccoli I got yesterday in Aldi and some gravy. It was delicious!

However, I am experiencing resistance from DD3, who has declared she doesn’t care for lentils and just wants some meat! I guess lentils are not everyone’s bag. I think I am going to have to get creative. Maybe combine lentils with mince to stretch the meat further, or use meat in small amounts with lots of veggies in stirfries, curries, wraps, etc.

So, a veggie fest with a garnish of meat?

Would you swap your house (if only for a week or two)?

So, you would love a holiday but even a campsite seems too expensive? Or perhaps the great outdoors isn’t your thing and, if  you don’t have all the gear anyway, camping is only a cheap option if you plan to use it every year.

Don’t get me wrong, I love camping and had some brilliant holidays in the uk and France when the kids were younger.  However, sometimes a few home comforts are nice!

The other thing I have done for a cheap holiday is house swap. I know it sounds terrifying and many people would be nervous about letting complete strangers take over their house for a fortnight, but in my experience it can work brilliantly.

We had two lovely holidays in Brittany and one in Normandy. Another in Segovia in Spain didn’t work so well but that was more the weather than the accommodation. Nice apartment but no air con and the hottest summer Europe had seen in years (2003). We couldn’t come home because of our house guests! Fortunately we were able to  visit friends in Barcelona who had a pool to cool things down then more in France, which was still hot but you could actually move during the day!

breton houseAll were respectful of our home and left things clean and tidy, although one of the properties in Brittany was a bit on the grubby side when we arrived.

So, the upsides of house swapping:

The accomodation is free!
It is a real home from home – better equipped than any holiday apartment would be
You have someone looking after your home so that it isn’t left empty
You can even exchange pets! Our cats were fed and we became foster carers to some chickens!
You can save on car hire and exchange cars too, although we never did this
If you exchange with a family your kids get to play with all their kids toys (so you need to put away anything precious)
Your hosts will usually leave you lots of local tourist and bus information
You can exchange in the UK or abroad

The downsides:
It is a risk – although it is your interests and theirs that they look after your stuff you can’t guarantee that they won’t help themselves to your best silver
They can pull out even if you have already booked your travel
You need to give your house the biggest clean of its life so lots of work before you go
It needs to be in good decorative order

I would advise you to use an agency – there are lots on the internet. Be realistic about who you try to swap with; the proud owner of a villa with a pool in the South of France probably won’t want your three bed semi in Ordinaryville. Be honest about your property – you want your swappers to be truthful with you. Have a neighbour keep an eye and someone they can contact if there is an issue. We had problems with the plumbing at one place but our contact sorted it out.

When my house is in better shape I will definitely be house swapping again!